Alcohol detox is the process by which the body rids itself of the alcohol a person has consumed. It generally refers to what people undergo when they stop drinking (whether voluntarily or out of medical necessity) after a substantial period of heavy alcohol consumption. The alcohol detox process is accompanied by withdrawal symptoms of varying degrees of severity and generally indicates that a person has drinking habits that are putting their health at risk, and perhaps even an alcohol use disorder.
The purpose of medical alcohol detox is twofold:
- To enable the person to go through the detox period safely – some withdrawal symptoms can be extremely dangerous. Physical symptoms such as heart palpitations or seizures, or generalized symptoms that affect the mind, body, and emotions, such as delirium tremens (DTs), can be potentially fatal. Others, such as alcohol hallucinosis, may cause a person to act recklessly while being unaware.
- To lessen the mental and physical pain of withdrawal. As anyone who has experienced it will know, alcohol detox is a tremendously painful procedure. Emotions such as anxiety and depression can be so intense that they feel overwhelming. They are made worse by a host of physical symptoms that make a person feel very unwell.
While a medical detox alone will not address the issues underlying a person’s excessive use of alcohol, it is often the first step on the journey to recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.
Is a Medical Alcohol Detox Necessary?
While technically speaking even a simple hangover is a minor detox, as the body flushes the alcohol out of its system and recovers the consequences of excessive drinking, detox after sustained heavy drinking (perhaps even over several years), is on a whole new level. When a person’s brain and nervous system have become accustomed to having alcohol constantly in the body, they adjust. When the alcohol supply stops abruptly (and is, therefore ‘withdrawn’), or is drastically reduced, the body is ‘taken aback as it were, and has to readjust. It is also able to get rid of the harmful substance in it without more alcohol immediately replacing what it has managed to eliminate. As a result of these, a person will experience withdrawal symptoms.
As explained above, withdrawal symptoms can be very dangerous. When under medical supervision, a person can avoid ending up in a medical emergency situation, and there is help at hand at all times. The person’s chances of successfully going through the detox also increase dramatically, as they are in a safe environment. Finally, a complete detox, with appropriate medication to support the process, is often required to prepare a person emotionally and physically for further treatment such as rehab. In short, a medical detox is the safest.
How Does a Medical Alcohol Detox Work?
Medical detox has three stages: medical assessment, stabilizing, and transition to the next step.
After a doctor assesses a person’s condition, they decide what kind of detox is required. The doctor checks a person’s vital signs – heart rate, blood pressure, temperature – and inquires about how much alcohol they have consumed, over how long a period, and if they have taken other drugs. They refer back also to a person’s medical history – if they use alcohol or drugs regularly, have been diagnosed with any mental health issues, have any ongoing health concerns, or are currently on any medication, and so on. A blood or urine test may help them ascertain more clearly exactly what substances are still present in a person’s system.
Once the doctor has determined the appropriate detox procedure, they will take steps to attenuate the severity of a patient’s withdrawal symptoms and prevent critical outcomes.
Symptoms generally appear within 6 to 24 hours of the last drink (sometimes even sooner). Many pass within a day or two, others, like DTs, may not even begin before two or three days or more. A patient may display any, or almost all, of the following symptoms:
- Nausea and vomiting, diarrhea
- Shaking, shivering, feeling alternately hot and cold
- Headaches, sweating, exhaustion
- Vivid, unpleasant dreams, hallucinations
- Seizures, delirium
Mental and emotional symptoms can also be pronounced:
- Anxiety, depression, confusion
- Irritability, agitation, intense mood swings
- Inability to focus
- Strong cravings for alcohol
In order to manage these symptoms, doctors generally prescribe sedatives, often of the benzodiazepine family, such as Valium or Xanax. These drugs work very well but should be taken strictly on medical prescription, as they can become addictive if misused.
Once a patient has recovered significantly and is nearing the end of their detox, the question of what the next step should be arises. Often, medical detox will be the first part of a recovery program in a rehab center, so what follows is a further stay in the rehab. Some treatment centers do not have sufficient medical staff to supervise a detox, while certain medical facilities offer detox but not the psychological counseling and continued treatment that can follow. In all cases, the main concern will be to prevent the patient from returning to the habits of alcohol and substance use that put them in danger.
How Long Does a Detox Last?
The detox process takes on average 7 to 10 days, and the person will go through three stages while it runs its course.
- Early-stage: alcohol is still present in the body. Withdrawal symptoms are just beginning to appear, and are usually mild.
- Peak stage: the body is rid of almost all the alcohol, and withdrawal symptoms become most intense, sometimes unbearably so. This makes relapse likely and is why appropriate medication is critical at this stage.
- Final stage: symptoms subside and medication can be reduced. The body is stable, and the person is potentially ready to begin other therapies.
Undergoing a medical alcohol detox basically means a person has ended up in hospital because of their alcohol use. This alone should be a clear warning sign, and seeking professional help is advised.