Alcohol Detox: What to Expect & How to Prepare

Alcohol Detox

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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What to Expect and How to Prepare for Alcohol Detox

Alcoholism treatment is effective. Approximately 33% of clients who go through detox and therapy report having maintained sobriety a year after completing their program. Others cut down significantly, experiencing fewer alcohol-related issues. 

So if treatment works so well, why don’t more people take advantage of it? A large part of the problem stems from the horrendous detox symptoms that one must make it through before treatment. A better understanding of alcoholism and the detox process can vastly improve the chances of a successful recovery for you or a loved one.

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a mental health illness defined by a persistent inability to cut down on drinking despite negative personal, professional or health repercussions. AUD is a major problem not only for adults but for children as well. In 2021, nearly 30 million people in the United States ages 12 and older struggled with alcoholism at some point during the previous year. 

Depending on the severity, AUD, which is a neurological condition, may range from mild to severe. Chronic alcohol use perpetuates alcoholism by making changes to the brain. The good news is that people with AUD can get better with the use of evidence-based treatments, including behavioral therapy, mutual support groups, and medicines, regardless of how bad the condition may appear.

Alcoholism is best understood as a three-part cycle: the binge stage, withdrawal stage, and preoccupation stage. Each phase depends on and contributes to the next. A person may repeat the three-part cycle numerous times a day, or it may span weeks or months. It’s important to remember that anyone may fall into addiction at any point in the cycle.

During the binge stage, a person feels the pleasant benefits of alcohol, such as an increase in happiness, a decrease in anxiety, and the ability to feel relaxed in social interactions. The withdrawal stage starts after a person stops drinking for a few hours and experiences a reward deficit; this is why the drinker no longer drinks to feel good but rather to avoid the depressing feeling that the withdrawal causes. The preoccupation stage is when the person with alcohol use disorder starts craving and seeking alcohol; the changes in the brain that are caused by prior alcohol use make it so that the person becomes preoccupied with drinking again. 

What Causes Alcoholism?

Even though genetic factors increase a person’s risk of developing alcoholism, a person who has alcoholics in their family history will not automatically have issues with alcohol. Other circumstances, including one’s upbringing and social circle, play significant roles in determining one’s vulnerability to alcoholism. Genetics, however, increase not only a person’s risk of alcohol dependency but also the amount of alcohol consumed and the risk for alcohol-associated disorders such as cirrhosis and upper gastrointestinal malignancies.

Understanding the Importance of Alcohol Detox

Alcohol detox is a vital initial step on the treatment path toward a sober life. It treats alcoholism as a physical disease and helps people safely go through the withdrawal process. 

Detoxification is a process that prepares clients for further therapeutic treatments by allowing for the time needed for alcohol to leave a person’s body completely, making them more receptive to counseling and behavioral therapy. Detoxing in a professional setting reduces potential adverse effects on health and boosts the probability of a successful recovery by offering a safe and nurturing setting. 

Symptoms to Expect During Detox

Many different withdrawal symptoms may occur during alcohol detox. In the first few hours after stopping alcohol use, you may experience shaking hands, perspiration, nausea, and panic. Hallucinations, epileptic attacks, and delirium tremens (DTs), marked by disorientation and extreme agitation, might appear as detox continues. It’s also possible that you’ll experience physiological symptoms, including a racing pulse, higher blood pressure, and abnormal breathing patterns. Nightmares and restless sleep are common as well as are extreme food cravings, especially for items containing sugar.

Significant psychological effects include quick and extreme variations in mood, irritability, and an inability to focus. It’s common to have some level of emotional suffering, such as mild gloom or severe anxiety. Abdominal discomfort, nausea, and vomiting are common gastrointestinal symptoms as well. 

The intensity and length of these symptoms vary from person to person, depending on variables such as their general health, their alcohol use, and any other co-existing medical issues. Professional medical care during alcohol detox is vital for managing withdrawal symptoms if they are severe. 

Timeline for Alcohol Detox

It takes just two hours without alcohol for withdrawal to set in. The worst of the symptoms usually go away during the first week, but some of the less severe ones might linger for months or even years. A medically assisted withdrawal reduces the likelihood of life-threatening consequences, allows for constant monitoring of your health, and reduces pain and discomfort. While there is no way to predict the precise timing or severity of withdrawal symptoms, it is possible to get an idea of what to expect.

Initial Symptoms

Detox from alcohol often begins with the rapid development of minor symptoms. Headaches, anxiousness, tremors, nausea, and irritability are all common early withdrawal symptoms. Many people also experience an inability to fall asleep

First Day

Some people experience a worsening of symptoms as the first day of detox draws to a close. Additional symptoms may include faintness, dizziness, tremors, and seizures after the first 12 hours of use.

Second Day

The second day of detox usually presents the same symptoms as the first day. However, it’s possible for a person to start experiencing the hallucinations and strange delusions that mark the onset of delirium tremens as well. These hallucinations, along with extreme panic attacks, can last for several days. 

The Rest of the First Week

You may experience a variety of withdrawal symptoms throughout the rest of the first week of detox. Delirium tremens and other potentially fatal symptoms also peak around this period.

After the First Week

After a week of detox, most of the most severe symptoms will subside. It’s possible for some symptoms, like racing thoughts, fatigue, mild insomnia, and delayed reflexes, to last several weeks, but most of these are manageable with treatment.

What Happens After Detox?

After going through withdrawal and finishing detox, there are several treatment options to choose from. Inpatient care works well for those who need 24/7 supervision to overcome their cravings for alcohol. Outpatient centers offer more freedom, allowing clients to reside in their own homes while receiving alcohol treatment. This type of care works best for those with a strong support system at home. 

Partial hospitalization is available to those who want to combine the elements of inpatient and outpatient care. Partial hospitalization provides therapy during the day that clients can partake in without having to commit to overnight stays. 

Dual diagnosis services treat those with alcoholism and a co-occurring disorder, such as anxiety or chronic depression. In these programs, professionals treat both the addiction and any other psychiatric conditions at the same time. Some clients require nothing more than one-on-one counseling sessions with a treatment counselor. During sessions, the clients learn what causes their alcohol misuse while also developing strategies to manage the disease. 

What Medicines Do Doctors Use to Treat Alcoholism?

Doctors sometimes prescribe acamprosate, disulfiram, or naltrexone for the treatment of alcoholism. Medication has several advantages in the treatment of alcoholism and plays an important part in helping people achieve sobriety. They are extremely useful for alleviating the pain and dangers of withdrawal during detoxification. 

Medication may help with long-term rehabilitation by reducing cravings, discouraging alcohol use, and encouraging abstinence. For certain people, medication-assisted therapy is an essential part of an all-encompassing therapeutic approach that includes a variety of behavioral treatments. Ultimately, medication is an integral part of a comprehensive treatment plan for many, given that it helps people overcome the physiological components of alcoholism and keeps them sober.

Tips for Alcohol Detox

Making it through alcohol detox is one of the most challenging parts of getting sober. People who have consumed alcohol heavily for a long time will likely experience severe withdrawal symptoms. You or a loved one may need a medical detox at a hospital or treatment center to go through the process safely. If you choose to detox in an outpatient setting, you should have someone stay with you. Choose a person who can monitor your health and call for help if needed. The following are several tips that may make the process easier. 

Take a Cold Shower

When you feel the need to drink, taking a cold shower might help reset your thinking processes. Beyond aiding with alcohol withdrawal, hydrotherapy and other forms of naturopathic medicine offer a variety of other fantastic advantages, like helping cleanse the mind. It may also alleviate the sweating and flushing that can accompany alcohol withdrawal.

Stay Away From Your Drinking Buddies

Getting away from people who enable your drinking is crucial during alcohol withdrawal. These individuals may not understand your desire to stop drinking. They may also resent your efforts to achieve a sober lifestyle because it challenges their efforts to make their alcohol use appear normal. During the detox process, they may even attempt to give you a drink. 

Practice Breathing Techniques

There are a variety of breathing techniques that you can use to promote relaxation and better manage withdrawal symptoms during the detox process. Many of these exercises focus on alleviating anxiety, reducing stress, and stabilizing the autonomic nervous system. 

Controlled breathing is a common method that people use to ease the psychological distress often associated with detox. Incorporating breathing exercises into an alcohol detox plan can result in several therapeutic gains, including a decrease in both frequency of drinking and overall alcohol intake.

Exercise Regularly

Exercising during alcohol detox is highly recommended because of the positive effects that it has on physical and mental health. Actively moving your body helps remove toxins by stimulating natural detoxification mechanisms. Regular exercise will also help you sleep better, which might be a relief if you’re experiencing insomnia. 

You’re likely to experience a lot of stress and anxiety during detox, but exercise generates endorphins that help alleviate these feelings. Modest exercise performed on a regular basis can boost your mood and self-esteem and promote stress management. 

Drink Lots of Fluids

Dehydration and nausea are common withdrawal symptoms for people with alcohol consumption disorders. If you’re dealing with dehydration or nausea, drinking plenty of fluids, particularly those containing electrolytes, will help. Some of the best beverages to drink are sports drinks that have lots of sodium, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. You’ll also want to drink plenty of water because it may reduce cravings for alcohol

Help for Alcoholism Is Only a Phone Call Away

At AlcoholAwareness.org, our mission is to increase awareness about alcoholism. As specialists in recovery, we understand how difficult it is to find support to help yourself or a loved one achieve a sober lifestyle. Contact us at (855) 955-0771 today so that we can assist you in finding the resources you need to detox and begin your recovery journey.

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