What is Alcohol Detox?

what-is-alcohol-detoxAlcohol withdrawal syndrome is a potentially life-threatening condition that can occur in people who have been drinking heavily for weeks, months, or years and then either stop or significantly reduce their alcohol consumption. While alcohol use is widely accepted in social settings because it is legal to consume after age 21, a person who is dependent on the substance is at significantly higher risk than someone who is experiencing withdrawal from an illicit and highly stigmatized substance such as heroin. While opiate withdrawal can be tremendously uncomfortable and may also require medical observation, the chance of death is much less likely than that associated with alcohol detox.

Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
  • Hand tremors or shakes
  • Poor balance
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Muscle/body aches
  • Facial sweating
  • Chills

If untreated, the risk of seizures, delirium tremens (DT’s) and/or blackouts can be high- all of which have the potential to be life threatening.

Why Should Alcohol Detox Never be Attempted Alone?

Attempting to stop drinking “cold turkey” without the help of a medical or behavioral healthcare professional, is not only uncomfortable, but extremely dangerous.

In order to ensure a patient receives appropriate treatment while in detox, a full lab work-up should be done and reviewed.  Alcohol can negatively affect both the liver and kidneys, which may require immediate intervention and effectively alter the course of the alcohol detox period.  Perhaps the most acute and dangerous scenario is an elevation in plasma ammonia level, which can cause confusion, unsteadiness on one’s feet, extreme tiredness, hyperventilation and seizures, all of which require medical attention in order to be stabilized.

Alcohol Detox during RehabAlcohol detox in rehab

While there is no “standard” protocol for medication during an alcohol detox, it is common for a patient to be given a tapering dose of sedatives such as Librium, valium, Ativan or other benzodiazapines along with a number of other medications, some over the counter, to ease the process.  Vital signs should be closely monitored every 4 hours and should be assessed by a nurse twice a day and at lease once per day by a physician. An alcohol detox can range anywhere from 3 to 9 days, depending on the severity of symptoms.

Alcohol detox can be done on both an inpatient or outpatient setting; however, it is always safer for a patient to be under a doctor or treatment facility’s care 24 hours a day while coming off of the substance. While rare, an at-home detox is possible, however, this requires a registered nurse and doctor to come to the patient’s home and will usually incur a heavy financial burden, as these services are not covered under any medical insurance.

Oftentimes, patients find the most comfortable setting to be a residential treatment center that offers a monitored medical detox program. At our featured rehab centers we provide around-the-clock care and observation, along with therapeutic activities and customized treatment planning. Once you have completed rehab, the appropriate aftercare services can be set up to improve your chances for ongoing recovery.


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