Most American adults aged 18 and older have had a drink of alcohol at least once in their lives.
In fact, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) published that in 2013, approximately 86.8 percent of American adults reported that they had consumed alcohol in their lifetime.
Alcohol stimulates the production of dopamine in the brain, which is one of the neurotransmitters responsible for pleasure. Drinking in moderation is generally considered safe and socially acceptable for adults of legal drinking age, or 21 and older. Moderate drinking is defined by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as one drink per day for women and two for men, with a typical drink containing 0.5 ounces of alcohol (a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5-ounce shot of spirits).
Drinking to excess, or binge drinking, raises blood alcohol concentration (BAC) above 0.08g/dl and usually occurs when men drink more than five drinks and women drink more than four drinks in a two-hour period. Binge drinking is the most common pattern of excessive drinking in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in six Americans binge drinks around four times each month. While binge drinking can have many side effects, it does not necessarily indicate a problem with alcohol, although regular episodes of binge or heavy drinking can lead to the development of an alcohol use disorder, or AUD.
The NIAAA estimates that 16.6 million American adults aged 18 and older were battling an AUD in 2013. If you, or a loved one, are suffering from alcohol abuse or dependency, stopping drinking abruptly is not recommended, as it can be fatal. Often, medically assisted detox is the safest way to quit.
Alcohol abuse and dependency are treated in either an inpatient or outpatient setting. The course may begin with detox, which is the process of removing alcohol safely from the bloodstream. If you have been drinking more than three drinks a day for months, have stayed drunk for several days in a row, have become intoxicated every day for a month, or have a history of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, an alcohol detox program in a specialized facility offering 24-hour medical care and supervision likely offers you the best chance of a safe and successful recovery. The length of time you have been drinking and the amount of alcohol you consume in each sitting both play a role in your level of tolerance, dependency, and need for specialized treatment. Also, if you abuse other drugs with alcohol, detox in a specialized facility may be the best detox option.
Chronic and regular episodes of heavy or excessive drinking over time can lead you to develop a dependence on alcohol that is both physical and emotional. You may crave alcohol and continue to drink despite any negative health risks or interpersonal consequences. Family, work, or school obligations may be left unfulfilled, and activities you previously enjoyed may be dropped in order to drink instead.
The more heavily your brain and body depend on alcohol, the more you will benefit from an alcohol detox program. Alcohol makes changes in the chemical pathways in the brain responsible for reward and motivation, and these changes may take time to reverse. The goal of detox is to reach a stable and healthy physical balance.
Alcohol withdrawal can range from mild to moderate to severe. Even mild manifestations should be medically treated to avoid cardiac or blood pressure issues. If any of the following symptoms of alcohol withdrawal occur when you stop drinking, an alcohol detox program is likely the safest initial treatment option:
- Loss of appetite
- Clammy skin
- Rapid heart rate
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Lack of mental clarity
- Mood swings
According to the Annals of General Psychiatry, between 5 and 24 percent of those experiencing alcohol withdrawal will undergo a more serious form called delirium tremens (DTs), which can be potentially life-threatening. It is indicated by fever, severe confusion, agitation, hallucination, and seizures. Delirium tremens is a medical emergency. If you recognize these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention, as it is treatable. In recent years, the mortality rate from DTs has been lowered with proper medical care.
Medically assisted detox
Often, physical stabilization is achieved with the use of medications during detox. Anti-seizure drugs, such as benzodiazepine medications, are effective in managing some of the more troublesome withdrawal symptoms.
Both short-acting and long-acting benzodiazepines may be used during alcohol detox. Benzos with a short half-life are metabolized more quickly and include Ativan and Xanax, while those with a longer half-life remain in the bloodstream for longer and include Xanax, Klonopin, and Librium. Benzodiazepines are sedative tranquilizers that slow the central nervous system. Along with calming seizures, they also combat anxiety. Other mood stabilizers, such as antidepressants, are also sometimes used as adjunct medications during detox.
Alcohol also depletes the body of some of the necessary nutrients, and vitamin and mineral supplements may be helpful. You will need to rehydrate during alcohol detox and treatment as well.
If you have been drinking excessively everyday for a long period of time, medical professionals may use alcohol itself during detox. They may have you slowly taper off your drinking in a controlled manner instead of stopping cold turkey. Health care professionals will set up a schedule that gradually reduces your drinking over a period of time until you no longer consume any alcohol.
Other pharmaceutical options are continually being evaluated and researched for their potential effectiveness in treating alcohol withdrawal. Beta blockers, or adrenergic medications, are used to combat cravings and manage withdrawal symptoms in some cases.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one-third of all alcohol abusers also suffer from mental illness, while one-third of those with a mental illness and half with a severe mental disorder abuse substances. Drinking may be form of self-medication in order to mask or numb mental illness symptoms.
When two disorders are present in the same time in the same person, they are said to be co-occurring disorders, and simultaneous treatment provided by highly trained professionals is believed to provide the highest rate of success. When mental illness and alcohol abuse co-occur, other medications may be necessary during detox as well. Since alcohol abuse can interfere with mental illness treatment and similarly mental illness symptoms may exacerbate alcohol withdrawal, medical detox under direct medical supervision is generally recommended for alcohol abusers who also suffer from a mental health disorder.
Alcohol detox is the first step in many alcohol treatment programs that should be followed with support groups, group therapy, and individual counseling in order to achieve and maintain a successful and long-term recovery.
The Recovery Village offers a full continuum of care, including nurses on staff 24 hours a day in our specialized medical detox center. Regardless of the level of care you or your loved one may require, The Recovery Village can help.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.