Alcohol Detox

What to Expect at Alcohol Detox

The decision to enter treatment for alcohol and drug use is a courageous one. As the concept of life without drugs and alcohol begins to take shape, many clients look to enter treatment as a way to manage withdrawal symptoms and process difficult feelings and emotions that led to dependence in the first place.

According to 2019 surveys on drug use and health, nearly 86% of people over the age of 18 report that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime, with nearly 50% of those surveyed admitting that they overindulged within the past 30 days.

Detoxification: A Necessary Part of the Process

Even before digging into talk therapy and medication protocols, a detox period will be necessary to rid the body and mind of toxic substances that helped create the issue. Someone who has developed dependence through repeated heavy drinking will likely experience symptoms of withdrawal during this detox period.

What to Expect

Abstaining from alcohol is an excellent way to regain your health and quality of life. Abruptly stopping a heavy drinking pattern can be uncomfortable and downright dangerous, causing reactions in both the body and brain that may be too much for you to handle alone. Choosing a medically supervised detoxification program may be the safest way to manage symptoms and look forward to life on the other side. Here are some of the symptoms you may expect to experience during alcohol detoxification.

Increased Cravings

Clients report that one of the most intense symptom that they experience when detoxing is an increased craving for alcohol. These intense desires to drink are normal; they are caused by changes in brain chemistry that works hard to balance itself during detoxification. Doing what you can to stay busy and focused on other things will assist you in moving past these trigger points.

Flu-like Symptoms

Many people going through alcohol detoxification experience various symptoms that closely mimic flu symptoms. Nausea, vomiting, fever, shaking, and sweating are common occurrences that come with a detox period. It is essential to monitor these symptoms closely to ensure that they do not yield more serious health consequences such as extreme dehydration, loss of consciousness, seizures, and respiratory distress. Rest, hydrate as much as possible, and talk to a doctor about approved medications that can be taken to manage discomfort.


At its core, alcohol dependence produces semi-permanent changes in brain chemistry that will lead to anxiety once drinking has stopped. These feelings are only intensified as a new reality without drug and alcohol use begins to set in. Reaching out for help in times when your emotional process becomes too intense will allow you to connect with staff members and clinicians who can assist you with reducing these feelings of anxiety and depression.


Many clients report issues with poor sleep and insomnia during alcohol withdrawal. Finding it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep can cause even more stress and anxiety during the detoxification process. Do what you can to improve and develop healthy sleep habits during detox, such as:

• Maintaining a regular sleep schedule
• Avoiding caffeine and heavily processed foods
• Reducing exposure to technology right before bedtime
• Meditating to help turn off mental mind chatter
• Going for a walk or participating in some light exercise during the day to help regulate circadian rhythms

Excessive Fatigue

The constant process of cleaning out body and mind is exhausting. You are likely to suffer from bouts of extreme fatigue while you are busy detoxing your tissues. Fatigue is another common flu-like symptom that you need time to get over as your body adjusts to the new normal.


Despite its liquid composition, alcohol causes mild to severe dehydration. A headache is one of the first symptoms that you need to amp up your hydration efforts. Make sure to drink plenty of water and take over-the-counter pain relief medications such as Tylenol and ibuprofen to reduce discomfort if your doctor says that it’s OK.

Supervised Detox Protocols

During a detox, withdrawal symptoms can get worse before they start to improve. Undergoing a medically supervised detox is a way to ensure the integrity of your detox process while remaining safe in a controlled environment.

A medical detox program is an inpatient program that offers the safest, most efficient way to undergo a detox and begin the process of healing. It consists of three main steps:

• Intake evaluation
• Detoxification and withdrawal
• Preparation for ongoing treatment and recovery

If a client experiences symptoms of withdrawal within 24 hours after their last drink, it is recommended that they undergo medically supervised detoxification to ensure the best results.

Intake Evaluation

After admission to a detox program, clients will be assessed and evaluated by a team of medical professionals. This assessment may include a number of questions as well as a physical and psychological examination. The intake professional will likely ask questions relating to:

• Age
• Time of last drink
• Amount typically consumed
• Other drug use
• Family history of drug and alcohol use
• Family history of mental health disorders
• Physical health
• Prior experience with detox

The more information you can provide medical professionals, the more likely they will be able to develop a detoxification protocol that meets your needs. The process of intake and evaluation may seem stressful, but it is necessary to provide medical professionals with enough information to design a treatment protocol that works for you and your unique situation.

Detoxification and Withdrawal Process

Shortly after detoxification begins, the first signs of withdrawal begin to appear. The most uncomfortable period of time occurs anywhere between 24 and 48 hours after abstaining completely, with some clients reporting issues of delirium tremens, seizures, and hallucinations in addition to uncomfortable physical symptoms.

The most severe symptoms of withdrawal usually begin to subside within three to five days. The majority of symptoms fade after one to two weeks.

Preparation for Rehabilitation and Treatment

A detox program is just the first step on the long road to recovery from alcohol use. After detox, it is recommended that an individual continue therapy by enrolling in a rehabilitation and treatment program. Many rehabilitation programs can be customized to meet your unique preferences and needs. Here are just a few of the many services that rehabilitation programs provide:

• Medical care
• Substance use counseling
• Behavioral therapies
• Medication management
• Holistic therapies
• Relapse Prevention
• Aftercare support
• Support groups

With many inpatient and outpatient treatments lasting 30 to 90 days, choosing the right plan for you is an essential part of ongoing health and healing. Surrounding yourself with ongoing support and relationships will help reduce incidents of relapse that are common with alcohol use.

Treatment Options After Detoxification

Following your detoxification, there are a number of options available to you for ongoing treatment and rehabilitation. The most common types of programs include:

• Outpatient treatment
• Residential treatment
• Inpatient treatment
• Partial hospitalization treatment

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient rehabilitation offers a variety of drug and alcohol treatment services and support groups that can be attended at various times during the week and evening. This type of customized schedule allows patients to continue with a regular daily activities, but they are required to attend meetings and check in with treatment professionals at designated times for medication, counseling, and other services.

Residential Treatment

Residential treatment provides 24-hour services to help clients maintain recovery steps and freedom from addiction. Some of the services offered in residential programs include detoxification, maintenance care, cognitive behavioral therapy, family and couples counseling, and life-skills education to prepare for life after treatment. Taking advantage of these services ensures that clients are equipped with the tools and skills that they need to maintain long-term sobriety.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is structured much like residential treatment though stays in inpatient treatment centers are typically shorter. Inpatient treatment protocols run anywhere from 30 to 90 days during which time a client can take advantage of a wide variety of treatment options while under the care and supervision of medical and rehabilitation professionals.

Partial Hospitalization Treatment

Partial hospitalization treatment programs offer clients a chance to participate in wellness activities during the day and return home again at night. They are the next step toward independence as they allow participants to take advantage of medical and counseling services while remaining in the comfort and safety of their own homes.

Commonly Asked Questions About Detox

Having your questions answered about what to expect in a detoxification program will give you peace of mind that you’re making the right decision for a brighter future.

What Are the Side Effects of Alcohol Detox?

Detoxing leads to a number of potential side effects, which are collectively referred to as “withdrawal syndrome.” Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can include tremors, headaches, anxiety, and insomnia. Other patients report issues such as faster-than-normal heart rate, high blood pressure, and extreme agitation.

How Long Does Detox Last?

A large portion of detox plays itself out in the first week, but other symptoms of detox known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome can last weeks to years, depending on the severity of alcohol use.

What Can Be Eaten During Detox?

In general, eating clean can help support your detoxification efforts. Quality proteins, plenty of fresh produce, greens, and whole grains are recommended for the best results. Remember to drink plenty of water in combination with a healthy diet to expedite the process.

Is It Safe to Detox at Home?

Detoxifying on your own at home is not recommended. You are at increased risk for relapse, and you may not be able to handle severe symptoms of withdrawal that need medical attention.

Should You Go to a Hospital for Detox?

While it is possible to detoxify in a hospital, there are other places where you can safely and effectively detox, such as:

• Detoxification centers
• Inpatient treatment centers
• Outpatient detoxification centers

It is highly recommended that you choose supervised detoxification as anything done outside of a clinical setting can be extremely dangerous and unpredictable.

What About Relapse?

While in a clinical setting, access to alcohol is not available. Detoxing at home may result in an experience that you cannot control or predict, making it tempting to relapse. Other reasons that a relapse might occur include:

• Withdrawal symptoms that you can’t handle
• Easy access to alcohol
• Strong cravings to drink
• Psychological reliance on drinking and alcohol
• A lack of access to treatment for alcohol use
• Being around friends and family who drink

The risk of relapse is highest within the first 90 days of recovery, so beginning a treatment program as soon as possible after completing a detox protocol is recommended to continue your healing process.

Life After Detox

Detoxification is the first step of many toward creating a healthier, more productive life for you and your loved ones. The consequences of continuing to use alcohol are significant and long-reaching. Over time, excessive use of alcohol leads to permanent physical and psychological changes that can affect the quality of your life. Making a decision to enter detoxification and treatment is a definitive step in taking your life back and beginning to create life situations, relationships, and purpose that will create a new reality that is beyond your wildest dreams.

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Medically Reviewed By:

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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