Often, before pursuing a rehab option, someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs will need to go through a detoxification process. This process can be uncomfortable for many, and may even be dangerous.

These dangers can vary widely, from minor discomfort to life-threatening conditions. According to Web MD, “Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can begin as early as two hours after the last drink, persist for weeks, and range from mild anxiety and shakiness to severe complications, such as seizures and delirium tremens (also called DTs). The death rate from DTs—which are characterized by confusion, rapid heartbeat, and fever—is estimated to range from 1 percent to 5 percent.”

Because of these potential dangers, it is important for alcoholics to know when they should seek medical aid in detoxing, versus when they should try doing it on their own.

When Should an Alcoholic Seek Medical Assistance in Detoxing?

There is no perfect answer for when to seek medical assistance with detox, as each person’s body will respond differently when coming off alcohol. If someone has been consistently drinking and suddenly stops, there is potential for alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), which is when the body starts to readjust as alcohol leaves the system. AWS can potentially lead to life-threatening conditions such as seizures, so it is important to monitor the body’s response to coming off alcohol.

What Exactly is Detox?

Detox stands for detoxification, which is defined as removing toxins from the body. Toxins are poisonous or harmful substances, such as drugs and alcohol. The body changes in many ways when alcohol is no longer in the system after prolonged use and these changes are part of the detox process.

In some cases, detox can be done on one’s own from home, referred to as natural detox. However, this can often be dangerous and that is when medical detox should be sought. With medical detox, the detoxification process is undergone with the assistance of medical professionals. This way the person detoxing is in medical care should any dangers arise when detoxing. Often, medical detox is also more comfortable for the person going through withdrawals as professionals know how to minimize discomfort.

What is the Timeline for Alcohol Detox?

The types of withdrawals and when they set in differ for anyone coming off alcohol, but there is a general timeline of what happens when the body is ridding itself of alcohol and the accompanying toxins.

For example, six to 12 hours after the last drink, common reactions include minor hand tremors, trouble sleeping, minor stress and/or anxiety, upset stomach, loss of appetite, sweating, and headaches. As time progresses, these symptoms may worsen. Twelve to 48 hours into detox, a patient may experience hallucinations, withdrawal seizures, and tonic-clonic seizures. Then, 48 to 72 hours in, hallucinations may intensify, delirium tremens can set it, and the patient may become disoriented with an elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature.

In a recent study, we surveyed 2,136 American adults, 1,559 of whom had detoxed before. Respondents’ withdrawal symptoms lasted for an average of 4.83 days. For 95% of respondents, withdrawal symptoms lasted between 2–8 days. This range stayed the same whether they detoxed from home or at a medical facility.

Respondents who had detoxed from alcohol reported experiencing the following:

  • 1 in 2 respondents reported irritability (46.8%)
  • 1 in 2 reported fatigue (42.3%)
  • 1 in 2 reported sweating (44.9%)
  • 1 in 2 reported stress or anxiety (48.6%)
  • 1 in 3 reported hand tremors (33.5%)
  • 1 in 4 reported nausea or vomiting (23.6%)
  • 1 in 4 reported mood swings (23.6%)
  • 1 in 5 reported rapid heart rate (22.9%)
  • 1 in 8 reported hallucinations (13.4%)
  • 1 in 10 reported Delirium tremens (DT) (11.4%)
  • 1 in 12 reported seizures (8.2%)

What Types of Medical Detox Exist?

If seeking medical assistance in detoxing, there are two options: outpatient and inpatient.

Outpatient medical detox includes visiting a medical doctor for an assessment. The doctor will likely ask for a complete medical and drinking history so as to determine the best plan of action. A physical exam will also be conducted, during which any physical withdrawal symptoms will likely be identified. From there, a detox plan will be made and the doctor will advise whether they believe the alcoholic can detox on their own with check-ins, or if they should be admitted to an inpatient detox facility. There are certain risks without patient detoxification, such as the fact that the person will not be under constant medical care. This being said, they should have someone at home willing to check in on them at certain intervals and be sure everything is going as it should be and no dangers arise.

In an inpatient detox facility, a patient checks in and remains in the facility for their entire detoxification process, which usually takes anywhere from six to 14 days. In most inpatient facilities, the person detoxing is under medical care for 24 hours per day, so that if anything happens, medical personnel respond immediately.

An added benefit of medical detox is that certain drugs can be prescribed to aid in the withdrawal symptoms. These may include anti-anxiety drugs, anti-seizure drugs and beta-blockers (drugs that decrease the heart rate, reduce tremors and may help with alcohol cravings).

Remember: Detox is Not a Cure

Though detox is often the first step to recovery, it is not by any means a cure for alcoholism and addiction. According to Drugabuse.net, “The best way for an individual to overcome alcoholism is to take part in a comprehensive alcohol rehab program. These programs address both the physical (detox) and psychological (counseling) components of addiction.”

Without addressing the psychological aspects of addiction, the patient likely will not have the tools necessary to remain sober after going through detox.

  • Sources

    Alcohol Detox Programs. Drugabuse.net. Accessed 31 July 2016. A Safer Alternative to Rapid Detox. Novus Medical Detox Center. Accessed 31 July 2016.

    Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. Web MD. Accessed 31July 2016.

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.

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