Alcohol Withdrawal and Detox

There are many destructive consequences associated with alcohol addiction, yet this substance continues to be deliberately abused – sometimes, in order to avoid experiencing withdrawal. In the addiction community, withdrawal and detox are widely recognised as physically and psychologically draining and sometimes painful experiences. However, this first step of ridding your body of alcohol is essential to help you begin putting your life back on track. Alcohol detox involves helping you safely navigate the process of withdrawal after you quit drinking. If carried out at home without proper medical supervision, alcohol withdrawal can quickly become deadly. After detox, you can start treatment at a rehab centre and learn the skills to help you maintain long-term sobriety.

If you’re living with chronic alcohol addiction, detox should certainly be a part of your treatment programme. Detoxification can take place either on site at a rehab facility or off site at a hospital. Some centres offer detox as part of their programmes, where you can begin as soon as you pass through the admission and assessment process. If your rehab centre is not equipped to handle alcohol detox, addiction specialists may recommend one for you. After this essential first step, you can begin addiction treatment and therapy to address the other aspects of alcohol dependence.

Alcohol Withdrawal: What is it?

Withdrawal occurs when you quit drinking, especially if you’ve been consuming alcohol in large quantities for a prolonged period of time. During the first few days after you stop drinking alcohol, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal can be extremely challenging. Even though you can definitely benefit from getting sober, it’s essential to understand the risks and dangers involved with suddenly quitting or going ‘cold turkey’. Unlike the withdrawal process for many other substances, alcohol withdrawal can be deadly. The only substances with the same level of danger associated with withdrawal are benzodiazepines. Untreated, severe alcohol withdrawal can result in death.

Generally, alcohol withdrawal can be divided into three different levels; minor, mid-level and major withdrawal. Minor withdrawal is characterised by symptoms such as sweating, shaky hands, insomnia, headache and nausea. These symptoms may appear six to twelve hours after you stop drinking. At mid-level withdrawal (within 12 to 48 hours), your symptoms may become more intense, in addition to irregular heartbeat, racing pulse and hallucinations. Your major withdrawal symptoms may appear within 48 to 72 hours after you stop drinking and may include severe blood pressure spikes, seizures and an inability to differentiate hallucinations from reality.

Types of Alcohol Withdrawal

Acute Alcohol Withdrawal

Acute withdrawal frequently occurs within the first couple of weeks after you quit drinking. You may experience sudden and severe withdrawal symptoms during this period, in which there is usually a high risk of seizures, developing delirium tremens (‘DTs’) or temporarily losing consciousness. As a result of the dangerous health complications that can occur at this stage, it is best to seek treatment at a hospital or specialised rehab facility. Medical professionals will be able to provide round-the-clock health assessments and control your symptoms.

Post-Acute Withdrawal

You may experience some prolonged side effects from alcohol withdrawal after the initial symptoms have tapered off. This type of withdrawal is referred to as ‘Post-Acute Withdrawal’. It refers to the symptoms that occur and last for a long period after acute withdrawal. Without the right kind of treatment, this type of withdrawal can make your life highly uncomfortable, even after rehab. The common symptoms you may experience with post-acute withdrawal include anxiety, emotional outbursts, irritability, low energy, memory problems, dizziness, delayed reflexes and increased accident proneness.

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Causes of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal is caused by a wide range of factors. When you consume alcohol, an enzyme in your liver processes and breaks it down. Through this process, the alcohol is expunged from your system through urine. The remaining alcohol that does not become metabolised is absorbed by your brain and other parts of your body. The effects of the alcohol on your brain may cause feelings of relaxation and happiness.

Excessive amounts of alcohol in the brain can result in symptoms of drunkenness, such as memory lapses, slurred speech and difficulty walking. However, since heavy drinking increases your tolerance, your body will crave more alcohol in order to achieve the same feelings.

When you stop drinking, the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms that occur are a result of your brain and body trying to function without the constant presence of alcohol. The severity of alcohol withdrawal is typically determined by different factors, including how much you drink. For instance, if you’re drinking eight or more units of alcohol five or more nights a week, you have a higher chance of experiencing alcohol withdrawal.

Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can occur as early as two hours after you have your last drink. Within the first 24 to 48 hours, your symptoms may peak and you could begin to experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as fever, tremors, sweating, insomnia, changes in blood pressure and rapid heartbeat. As withdrawal symptoms vary from one individual to the next, you could suffer either mild or severe side effects.

Delirium tremens is one of the most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Even though it is uncommon, it can be life-threatening. It can occur within the first 48 hours after you quit drinking and involves shaking, hallucinations, confusion and high blood pressure. If you’re a heavy drinker and suddenly cease consumption, you can expect to experience any of several dangerous symptoms. This is why it’s essential to undergo alcohol detox at a controlled medical facility.

The alcohol withdrawal timeline may vary with each person, but you can expect it to closely follow the following pattern:

Six to twelve hours post-ingestion:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Shaking
  • Nausea and vomiting

12 to 24 hours post-ingestion:

  • Disorientation
  • Hand tremors
  • Seizures

48 hours post-ingestion:

  • Seizures
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Tactile, auditory and visual hallucinations
  • High fever and excessive sweating
  • Delirium tremens

Alcohol Withdrawal: Symptoms and Effects

Withdrawal symptoms are usually an expected occurrence with alcohol addiction. They can be dangerous and should be considered warning signs that you’re consuming too much alcohol and starting to develop a physical dependence. Addiction is the most serious form of drinking problem and can result in a variety of severe health problems. When you’re addicted to alcohol, you may constantly experience a powerful, often uncontrollable desire to drink or feel like you can’t function without alcohol in your system. The most common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, depression, chills and sweats, weight loss or weight gain, headaches, nausea, vomiting, stomach aches, sleeplessness and hallucinations.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms as often as several days a week, there’s a high chance that you’re already suffering from alcohol dependence. Many of the withdrawal symptoms can quickly become serious and you should seek medical attention, especially if you’re experiencing severe shaking, confusion and hallucinations or repeated vomiting. Addiction treatment specialists can provide the appropriate medications to help you cope with your symptoms. Don’t let the fear of withdrawal stop you from getting the help you need. Learn more about alcohol addiction withdrawal and detox – as well as the different support available – by contacting an addiction specialist today.

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Physical and Psychological Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Withdrawing from alcohol usually involves a range of physical and psychological symptoms. The physical symptoms manifest in the way your body reacts to the lack of alcohol in your system. Psychological withdrawal symptoms are the feelings you may experience from not consuming alcohol, which can also include mental changes.

Everyone experiences alcohol withdrawal differently. It can take up to 72 hours on average before your body reacts to the reduction or total absence of alcohol. In addition, you may experience severe physical withdrawal symptoms that require medical supervision. According to the National Institute of Health, you should seek medical attention if you experience fever, blackouts, hallucinations, chest pains, severe confusion, and delirium tremens.

The physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include: clammy skin, headache or migraine, loss of appetite, seizures, rapid heart rate, nausea, vomiting, and enlarged or dilated pupils. Psychological withdrawal symptoms include: irritability or easy excitability, anxiety, nervousness, aggression, rapid emotional changes, depression, difficulty thinking clearly, fatigue, jumpiness or shakiness, as well as nightmares.

Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal

Generally, complications from alcohol withdrawal do not readily develop with mild withdrawal symptoms. However, some of the associated effects of alcohol withdrawal can result in severe illness or even death. For example, you could experience seizures, which can increase in severity with each withdrawal episode. Another effect of alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens, where you may experience disorientation, mental confusion and hallucinations. This severe effect of alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizures, fever, agitation or severe confusion.

Alcohol withdrawal can be associated with severe psychiatric problems, such as sleep disturbance, depression and anxiety. In addition, after the intense acute withdrawal has subsided, you may experience changes in your physiology, mood and behaviour. Even though the effects of alcohol withdrawal may sound dire, there is hope.

Recent advancements and research support the development of better medications to lower the risks of complications and encourage long-term sobriety. If you experience very severe symptoms, pharmacotherapy (medications) can be used to treat them and reduce your risk of seizures and delirium tremens. It’s essential to have your alcohol withdrawal medically supervised, because symptoms can quickly intensify. Therefore, you can seek treatment for the effects of alcohol withdrawal at hospital or an alcohol addiction treatment programme.

Alcohol Detoxification

If you suddenly quit drinking after a long and sustained period of heavy alcohol consumption, you may undergo some physical and emotional problems, as your body expels all toxins. This process of clearing the alcohol from your body is known as detox or alcohol detoxification. It refers to an attempt to return your system to normal after extended abuse of alcohol.

Alcohol detoxification is an essential first step in treating dependence or alcoholism. Roughly a week or two after starting detox, your withdrawal symptoms might disappear. However, depending on the severity of abuse, it could take longer. After a successful detox, you can focus on therapies, counselling sessions, support options and other aspects of the recovery process.

Medical detox is often recommended, because of the severity of alcohol withdrawal, ensuring potentially dangerous complications (like seizures) can be prevented. Medical detox treatment can take place in an inpatient facility, where your vital signs are supervised and medications can be administered to offset symptoms. In addition, mental health professionals are usually available to step in and help you deal with the psychological and emotional effects of alcohol withdrawal. The symptoms you experience in alcohol detoxification can vary from mild to severe and life-threatening.

Although not everyone who consumes alcohol goes on to become addicted to the substance, it’s important to note that withdrawal can be brutal and dangerous and you should seek professional help for alcohol detoxification if needed.

Alcohol Abuse: Detox Process

Detoxification is your body’s natural way of flushing out toxins and harmful substances. Any time you consume alcohol, your liver metabolises ethanol and removes it from your system, which is the natural detox process occurring in your system. However, if you’re a frequent heavy drinker, you never completely detoxify from alcohol, as you are constantly adding more of it to your system. When you choose to quit, the first thing to do is stop drinking alcohol and allow the natural detox process to occur.

Alcohol detox mainly occurs in two ways; all at once, which is known as going ‘cold turkey’; or by slowly reducing your intake, which is known as tapering. You may choose to undergo a home detox and resort to the cold turkey method. However, this route to detox can be risky, as you may have to face severe withdrawal symptoms on your own. In the face of such painful and harsh symptoms, you could end up relapsing and exposing yourself to the danger of alcohol poisoning.

A medically supervised detox is the safest option when it comes to quitting alcohol consumption. At a detox centre or rehab facility, you can be monitored 24/7 to ensure your pain during withdrawal is properly managed and you’re not suffering any life-threatening symptoms. The biggest risks during alcohol detox include dehydration and delirium tremens. If it occurs whilst you’re home alone, severe dehydration can result in seizures, which could quickly become deadly. Delirium tremens can also lead to respiratory failure and cardiac arrhythmia, which can prove fatal if left untreated.

After detox, you’ll be prepared to start treatment for alcohol addiction. You can choose from a range of treatment methods, including inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment. Rehab is a widely acknowledged method of treating alcohol addiction, as it focuses on both the physical and mental aspects of the disease.

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Alcohol Detoxification Timeline

The duration of alcohol detox depends on factors such as personal health, age, gender, level of alcohol dependence, past withdrawal episodes, and use of sedative drugs. In cases of less severe dependence, detoxification may be short, ending two to three days following treatment. However, in other cases, detox could continue for up to two weeks. Detox can take hold as your blood alcohol level decreases, even if you’re still feeling the effects of alcohol. Alcohol detox usually begins about six to 24 hours after your last drink.

First stage: 0 -72 hours: You might begin to experience initial symptoms such as tremor, insomnia, nausea, restlessness and anxiety. These symptoms can subside without treatment after a few days if you are only mildly dependent on alcohol. However, more serious symptoms could occur, such as fever, increased pulse rate, blood pressure and breathing rate, excessive sweating and rapid breathing. Also, if you are severely dependent, these severe symptoms could begin earlier.

Second stage: two to five days: In the first week of alcohol detox, you may experience other types of severe symptoms including delirium tremens, which is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, usually requiring medical intervention. It usually begins two to five days after significantly reducing or quitting alcohol consumption. During a delirium tremens episode, you could experience extreme restlessness or agitation, severe tremors, confusion and disorientation, autonomic instability, paranoid ideation and hallucinations. Mild symptoms of delirium tremens may also present, such as depression, shakiness, nervousness, mood swings and nightmares.

It’s likely that for the rest of the alcohol detox process, your physical symptoms will increase and you’ll experience stronger cravings. Seizure activity may also be present and could increase in severity without proper management. Throughout the alcohol detox process, it’s important to have supportive care and the necessary sedating medications, as well as being diligently supervised until health risks subside.

Treatment Methods and Options

Alcohol addiction withdrawal and detox symptoms can shift quickly and violently. It’s possible for you to experience a range of minor symptoms to extremely severe effects in only a few hours. Different alcohol treatment programmes offer methods and options that are focused on helping you overcome addiction, no matter how minor or severe.

If you’re struggling with alcohol addiction, there are specialised rehab facilities that provide great benefits you can enjoy, such as close guidance through your recovery process and available treatment specialists to help alleviate some of your painful withdrawal symptoms. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to treating alcohol addiction. The types of therapies and services you’ll receive will depend on your history with alcohol abuse, including the frequency and amount consumed.

Some of the treatment methods and options include:

Inpatient treatment: provides a safe and supervised environment, where you can stay during treatment. Offering round-the-clock care, this is the most intensive method of treatment and typically lasts from 30 to 90 days.

Outpatient treatment: allows you to attend to your normal responsibilities whilst in recovery. This option is suitable if you have less severe levels of dependence, since you’ll face situations that tempt you to drink, as well as other influences.

Medication-assisted therapy: provided to help you deal with the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal. Certain medications are prescribed and administered via this method, so that you can focus on other aspects of your recovery.

Individual counselling: during the highs and lows of alcohol withdrawal and detox, rehab counsellors offer support and look for any underlying factors that may have influenced your addiction. They also provide guidance on how to address and overcome such factors.

Support groups: addiction recovery continues even after rehab is complete. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Al-Anon provide you with a safe space to discuss your treatment goals and challenges with others in recovery.

Finding the Right Treatment

Finding the right treatment for alcohol addiction can seem challenging. However, there is help available when you need it. When selecting a treatment programme for withdrawal and detox, there are a number of things to take into consideration:

  • Would you prefer to stay close to home or travel far away? You may find that taking an extended break from your hometown provides you with a suitable mental space to work through your substance abuse problems. On the other hand, you may choose to stay close to the comforts of home and have easy access to the support of family and friends.
  • Would you prefer inpatient or outpatient care? Both methods of treatment will typically include detox – as well as therapy and counselling sessions – to help you discover how to cope with your strong cravings and prevent relapse. Inpatient treatment requires you to stay at a supervised facility, whereas outpatient programmes let you undergo treatment whilst living at home. Before you decide on a treatment, you can be assessed by a doctor or other addiction treatment specialist, as they can provide informed suggestions for the method most likely to suit you in recovery.
  • Does the programme specialise in alcohol abuse treatment? Finding a reputable programme that is well versed in helping people addicted to alcohol is important. It means that the medical specialists in question have dealt with the issues surrounding alcohol detox and withdrawal before and are better equipped to help you recover.
  • Does the programme provide medically-assisted detox? Professional medical or psychological monitoring can have a major positive effect in your stimulant detox, especially in cases of poly-substance use or dual diagnosis (co-occurrence of a substance use disorder with a mental health disorder).

Home Detox for Alcohol Abusers: How Safe is it?

Even if you decide you’d rather detox from alcohol abuse at home, it is still crucial to find professional supervision. There are inherent health risks associated with alcohol withdrawal and detox such as hallucinations, seizures and even death. A safe recovery therefore requires you choose a proper detox programme, conducted on either an inpatient or outpatient basis.

There are outpatient programmes that allow you to stay at home whilst working towards recovery. However, consult your doctor before choosing outpatient detox to ensure it will be an effective method for you. Relatively mild symptoms of withdrawal can be managed at home if you have the appropriate medications and a supervising addiction specialist regularly checking up on you.

However, it is impossible to predict every single withdrawal symptom, and difficult to control all the different possible scenarios from home. If you’re a long-term alcohol abuser, going ‘cold turkey’ without medical supervision at a rehab facility can be dangerous. There are severe side effects of alcohol detox that may be difficult to control from home, such as hallucinations, heart arrhythmia, seizures, aspiration pneumonia, extreme nausea, fever and liver dysfunction. These are some of the reasons why home detox is not the safest option. Therefore, you should consider undergoing detox at a facility and then working through rehabilitation at home.

Self-Detoxification from Alcohol

It’s normal to want to attempt a self-detox at some point. There are people who have successfully detoxed from alcohol on their own. If you decide that self-detoxification from alcohol is the right option for you, it is essential to carry it out in the safest way possible. Detox can be difficult, but there are some helpful things to consider when beginning self-detox:

  • Before you quit drinking, discuss detox with your doctor. Be as open and honest as possible with them about the frequency and amounts of alcohol you’ve been consuming. Subsequently, your doctor will be able to determine if detoxing in a supervised medical centre would be the better option.
  • Prevent dehydration by drinking lots of fluids and eat snacks such as fruit, pretzels, cheese and crackers. Carbohydrate-rich meals can also help to reduce your cravings.
  • Ensure all alcohol is removed from your house before you start. This includes beverages in addition to other mind-altering substances, medicines, rubbing alcohol and even certain flavourings like vanilla extract.
  • Ensure to take your medicines exactly as prescribed. If you think you’re having a problem with your medicine, call your doctor or nurse.
  • It’s essential to have someone you trust accompanying you for the entire period. Your friends and family members can take turns caring for you until you complete detox.

Are you Ready for Help?

Alcohol addiction and withdrawal is a serious condition that may rapidly become life-threatening. If you think you might be experiencing withdrawal – especially if you’ve suddenly stopped consuming alcohol – call your doctor or go to the hospital. Also, when you are discharged from detox, you’re at high risk of relapse and may be easily susceptible to any system failures. Alcohol detox alone increases the possibility of overdose if you do not properly transition to alcohol addiction treatment after detoxification. Proper detoxification is essential, in addition to learning about your addiction and triggers and working with addiction specialists to replace all destructive behaviours with positive ones.


FAQs

Can these symptoms be categorised in order of seriousness, and are there side-effects?

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be categorised in order of seriousness, from mild to mid-level and major symptoms. There are a variety of side effects resulting from alcohol withdrawal, including disorientation, mental confusion and hallucinations.

How long do alcohol withdrawal symptoms take?

You may begin to experience the first stage of alcohol withdrawal symptoms about eight hours after your last drink. Your symptoms may peak after 24 to 72 hours, leading to the next set of symptoms which manifest about five to seven days later. After this period, your symptoms begin to decrease in intensity and taper off.

Do symptoms and their duration vary from person to person?

Typically, withdrawal symptoms and the amount of time they take vary from person to person. It also depends on your metabolic profile, degree of intoxication, tolerance and consumption history.

How long does alcohol withdrawal last?

There is no fixed time for overcoming alcohol withdrawal. The length of time withdrawal lasts depends on different factors, including how long you’ve consumed alcohol and the severity of your dependence.

Are there any home remedies for getting clean safely?

Drinking moderate to large amounts of water can help you flush the toxins, chemicals and alcohol from your body. By drinking water at regular intervals, you can also combat dehydration caused by alcohol consumption. In addition, you can take milk thistle extract, as it functions as a neutral cure to flush toxins from the body. It blocks the absorption of alcohol in the liver, as well as lowers the severity of side effects.

How long does it take to detox from alcohol?

In many cases, it takes one to two weeks to rid your body of all the alcohol or toxins in your body, so that you can start treatment fully sober. The main goal of detox is to help you safely and easily maintain abstinence when you begin recovery. This can usually be achieved in a short space of time.

What are the different types of alcohol withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal includes acute withdrawal, which involves the initial intense symptoms that occur after you quit drinking. Meanwhile, post-acute withdrawal can involve you experiencing prolonged symptoms after the initial ones have faded.

When will I stop craving alcohol?

During detox, you may experience powerful cravings, and there is always the possibility of relapse -even after completing a 30-day programme. For many people, alcohol cravings might never stop. Close to 70% of all alcoholics relapse during their first year of recovery. However, they will reduce in intensity over time and you can function without constantly thinking about drinking alcohol.

Can anyone tell I’m an alcoholic?

If you are suffering from alcoholism, someone may be able to tell by noticing signs such as: having to drink more to achieve the accustomed effects; appearing under the influence more often; reduced interest in previously pleasurable activities; inability to refuse a drink; and constantly seeming tired, irritable or unwell.

Can you die from alcohol withdrawal?

The abrupt cessation of alcohol consumption can cause your body to stop functioning properly and can lead to a fair amount of discomfort. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be severe, with sudden withdrawal resulting in heart palpitations, seizures, brain damage and other effects that can cause hospitalisation or even death.

Do withdrawal symptoms vary for different people?

There is a range of withdrawal symptoms that vary in pattern for different people. Even though every person experiences physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms differently, there are still certain signs and symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal that are general.

How important is medically supervised detox?

Without medical supervision, there can be severe complications that result from alcohol detoxification. Medically supervised detox offers experienced staff, therapies, medications and support to help you undergo detox safely. You can choose from an inpatient or outpatient detoxification programme in order to ensure effective and long-term recovery.

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