Find out what happens during alcohol withdrawal and detox, and learn about the differences between at-home, inpatient and outpatient alcohol detox.

Alcohol detox is the process of allowing the body to naturally eliminate all alcohol from its bloodstream and adjust to the absence of alcohol. People who are dependent on alcohol will experience withdrawal symptoms during detox, which can make the process an uncomfortable and even dangerous experience.

Some people try to detox at home without professional help, but this can increase the risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms. For many, the safest way to quit alcohol is to attend a medically assisted detox program at a professional addiction treatment facility.

How Long Does It Take To Detox From Alcohol?

Alcohol affects the body by activating GABA receptors in the brain. When alcohol is used for prolonged periods of time, these receptors are constantly overstimulated. The body adjusts to this by reducing how sensitive these receptors are. This balances out the overstimulation and helps these receptors function normally when alcohol is present.

When alcohol use stops, the GABA receptors are still less sensitive but are no longer constantly overstimulated by the presence of alcohol. This means they will be less active than they normally would. These receptors take several days to regain normal sensitivity and function, and withdrawal symptoms will occur throughout this period.

The severity and length of alcohol withdrawal will be determined by how suppressed GABA receptors are. The level of suppression depends on how much alcohol is normally in the bloodstream. The frequency and amount of alcohol use will have the greatest influence on how suppressed GABA receptors will be, but many other factors also play an important role in this process.

Alcohol Detox Symptoms

Alcohol use overstimulates GABA receptors, while detox causes them to be understimulated. In other words, effects that occur during alcohol detox are typically the opposite of effects caused by alcohol use.

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal during detox can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Nightmares
  • Impaired thinking
  • Sweaty, clammy skin
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Fever
  • Death

Alcohol detox can lead to potentially fatal complications, especially in severe cases of alcohol dependence. Someone who may experience moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal should seek medical supervision during detox.

Alcohol Detox Timeline

Alcohol detox will begin once alcohol levels in the bloodstream drop below what they have normally been. There are several distinct phases of detox that someone going through withdrawal will typically encounter:

  • Beginning symptoms: About 12 hours after their last drink, someone who uses alcohol heavily will begin to notice withdrawal symptoms. They may begin to feel more jittery and start to experience mild tremors and sweating.
  • Intensification: Once symptoms have started, they will become increasingly more intense over the next 24 to 72 hours. New withdrawal symptoms may develop on top of those that are already present. Withdrawal will become progressively worse.
  • Peak: Alcohol withdrawal symptoms will often peak, reaching their most intense level around 48 to 72 hours into withdrawal. It is during this peak that someone who has severe alcohol withdrawal will be most likely to experience the most dangerous symptoms.
  • Improvement: Most alcohol withdrawal symptoms will improve within seven to 10 days. Often, they begin improving following the peak of withdrawal. Symptoms will reduce more gradually than they intensified, but most symptoms will be gone by the end of one to two weeks.

How To Detox From Alcohol

Detoxing from alcohol is one of the most dangerous types of detoxes that your body can undergo. Anyone wishing to quit alcohol should speak with a doctor before attempting to detox.

In cases where alcohol use is not likely to cause serious side effects, people may be able to safely detox at home. Some people use detox drinks or detox kits to help the detox process. These resources may provide a small amount of help, but they are unlikely to majorly improve the detox process.

Those who have detoxed from alcohol before or are likely to have moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms should generally go through a medically managed detox. Alcohol withdrawal can cause potentially fatal symptoms, and more serious withdrawal symptoms should be monitored and treated by health care professionals.

Alcohol Detox at Home

Detoxing at home may seem like a cheaper, more convenient way to detox from alcohol, but it carries serious risks. Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal in those who have moderate to severe symptoms, and there are risks that complications can occur during an at-home detox. Detoxing from alcohol at home can work for some people, but you should always consult with a doctor before attempting to detox by yourself.

Medical Alcohol Detox

Medical alcohol detox is a program where you are supervised by health care professionals who monitor your progress and provide medications and treatments as needed. This method of detox is the safest, as it allows for early intervention and treatment before complications turn into bigger issues. This method is also the most comfortable, as unpleasant symptoms can be treated and managed using IV medications.

Alcohol Detox Programs

There are many different types of alcohol detox programs, each with varying lengths and intensities. There are also different types of detox facilities. Some provide only detox services, while others provide comprehensive services that include ongoing care after detox.

Inpatient Alcohol Detox

Inpatient alcohol detox is the most comprehensive type of medical detox available. This form of detox requires living in a detox facility during withdrawal. Inpatient detox may be necessary to safely detox for some people, but it provides a more comfortable, reassuring experience for anyone undergoing alcohol detox.

Outpatient Alcohol Detox

Outpatient alcohol detox allows far more freedom than inpatient detox and is safer than detoxing at home. Outpatient detox involves regularly following up with a health care professional before and during detox. This allows your progress to be monitored without requiring you to move into a detox facility. Outpatient detox is ideal for people who are not likely to experience severe detox symptoms.

Cost of Alcohol Detox

The cost of alcohol detox varies significantly based on several factors. Factors influencing the cost of detox include:

  • The length of detox
  • The complexity of detox
  • Whether detox is inpatient or outpatient
  • The quality of the detox center
  • Insurance coverage

The cost of alcohol detox will be different for everyone. Those seeking detox services should check what treatments they will need, how their insurance covers detox and what options different detox centers can provide.

Can You Die From Alcohol Detox?

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms that occur during detox can be fatal. While alcohol withdrawal can cause life-threatening seizures, the most dangerous complication is delirium tremens. Delirium tremens only affects 3% to 5% of people going through alcohol withdrawal, but it is fatal in well over a third of cases if left untreated.

Alcohol Detox Medications

During alcohol detox, medications can be used to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Common alcohol detox medications include:

  • Benzodiazepines: These medications are a foundational part of treating alcohol withdrawal. Benzodiazepines calm the body by acting on receptors similar to the ones affected by alcohol, making these drugs an excellent choice for calming withdrawal symptoms.
  • Anticonvulsant drugs: Anticonvulsant medications are used to treat seizures. Anticonvulsants may be given if seizures occur, but they can also be used to prevent seizures if there is a reasonable suspicion one could happen.
  • Adrenergic medications: Adrenergic medications will not treat seizures or delirium tremens, but they can reduce blood pressure and heart rate. This decreases the stress the body goes through and makes detox safer.
  • Barbiturates: Barbiturates can help reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms in ways similar to benzodiazepines. However, barbiturates are not as safe or reliable as benzodiazepines, so benzodiazepines are typically preferred over barbiturates.
  • Baclofen: Baclofen is a drug that has only been used for alcohol withdrawal in more recent years, but it can improve symptoms and reduce alcohol cravings. This medication acts on the same neurological pathways as alcohol and is being used more frequently for alcohol withdrawal treatment.

The medications used will depend on each person’s unique circumstances, and a doctor must be consulted before taking any medications for alcohol withdrawal.

Find an Alcohol Detox Center Near Me

When looking for an alcohol detox center near you, there are several factors to consider. These include:

  • Quality: It is important to make sure that you choose an accredited, reputable center that will provide you with high-quality, evidenced-based care.
  • Post-detox support: When planning to detox, it is ideal to find a detox center that includes rehab and follow-up care to ensure that sobriety is maintained.
  • Capabilities: If you may need more intensive monitoring and treatment, it will be important to ensure potential facilities will be able to meet your needs.
  • Reviews: It is always a good idea to see what other people’s experiences were like before choosing a detox facility.
  • Cost: Cost will always be a factor when choosing a detox facility. Know what your insurance covers and what potential facilities are able to do to help you.

Alcohol Detox: What To Expect

When detoxing from alcohol at a professional facility, you can expect to be kept as comfortable as possible at all times. To begin the process, your health care team will perform a comprehensive exam. This will likely start with paperwork and documentation that outlines your medical history, then a medical exam to assess your overall health.

Following the intake process, you will begin detox. During the initial stages of withdrawal, you may participate in activities that distract you from symptoms that begin occurring. You will be routinely assessed by health care professionals and have your vital signs taken frequently throughout the day. As symptoms occur, your detox team will provide medications and treatments to help relieve them.

As your symptoms begin to subside, your team will focus on helping you recover from the stress that your body has just undergone. The focus of care will shift to include strategies for coping with cravings and maintaining sobriety. Once detox is complete, you will likely begin the process of rehab. Some centers may provide rehab treatment in the same facility where detox services were provided.

At The Recovery Village, we provide a full continuum of care that includes medical detox, inpatient treatment, outpatient services and long-term aftercare. If you or someone you love is ready to begin a healthier, alcohol-free life in recovery, our experts are here to help. Contact us today to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment programs that can work well for your situation.

Jonathan Strum
Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
Benjamin Caleb Williams
Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more
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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.