Alcohol detoxification is the process that your body goes through when ridding itself of toxins built up through long-term consumption of alcohol. Detox is generally the first step of any addiction treatment program for alcohol use disorder.
Depending on the individual and the severity of the addiction, the exact alcohol detox process will vary. Alcohol detox can be generally divided into three stages, which are defined by the intensity of withdrawal symptoms. These stages are described further down in this article.
It is understandable to become slightly overwhelmed by learning about alcohol detox and the process of getting clean. It is best to view this journey as a healing process. Although it is challenging, the long-term gain is much more rewarding.
What is Alcohol Addiction?
Before we define the stages of alcohol detox, we must first understand what alcohol addiction is. Alcohol addiction, also referred to as alcoholism, is the most severe form of alcohol abuse. Those who struggle with alcohol addiction often feel as though they cannot function without alcohol.
Consequently, this leads to interpersonal and physical issues that worsen over time. Career goals, personal matters, relationships, and overall health are all part of the equation that becomes affected.
Alcohol abuse can be recognized by some common symptoms, such as:
- Experiencing temporary blackouts or short-term memory loss
- Exhibiting signs of irritability and extreme mood swings
- Making excuses for drinking, such as relaxation, stress management, or a sense of normality
- Choosing to drink over important responsibilities or priorities
- Becoming isolated and distant from loved ones
- Drinking alone or in isolation
- Feeling hungover when not drinking
- Change of appearance: the person may take on an unkempt, untidy appearance
- Change of company: the individual starts to spend time with a new group of friends who are also heavy drinkers
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal – the body’s response when you suddenly stop drinking after prolonged heavy alcohol use – is a tell-tale sign that your body and brain have become dependent on alcohol. Quitting “cold-turkey” results in your body not being able to readjust to functioning without alcohol quickly enough. This causes the uncomfortable side effects of alcohol withdrawal, like shakes, insomnia, nausea, and anxiety. It is important to emphasize that this is temporary. Through alcohol detox and addiction treatment, withdrawal symptoms alleviate, and you’ll experience significantly improved health while living a sober life.
Alcohol detox is best done at a hospital under medical supervision, because of some life-threatening health complications that can arise. A hospital will ensure your safety during detox, sometimes with the help of medication, through round-the-clock support.
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is the term that refers to symptoms that occur when a heavy drinker suddenly stops or significantly reduces their alcohol intake. These symptoms range from physical to emotional. They can include anything from mild anxiety and fatigue to nausea.
During alcohol detox, symptoms of AWS are monitored and treated throughout the entire addiction treatment process. These symptoms include:
- Nausea – appetite loss
- Insomnia – fatigue
- High blood pressure
- Appetite loss
- Clammy skin
Some symptoms may worsen, which is why we strongly urge individuals to undergo alcohol detox at an accredited hospital or detox facility. The most severe form of withdrawal syndrome is known as delirium tremens, which is characterized by the following:
- Extreme confusion
- Extreme agitation
- Tactile hallucinations, such as a sense of itching, burning, or numbness
- Auditory hallucinations, or hearing sounds that don’t exist
- Visual hallucinations, or seeing images that aren’t there
Severe AWS symptoms are a medical emergency. A high fever, hallucinations, and heart disturbances are all reasons to seek immediate help and call 911.
Treating Alcohol Withdrawal – The Detox Process
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal take place in three main stages that go from mild, to moderate, to severe. As the detox process comes to an end, you’ll find yourself feeling much better and like your normal self again. It may be an uncomfortable process, but it’s well worth it.
Stage 1: Mild Symptoms
Mild symptoms arise about 6-8 hours after the last drink. These symptoms include minor physical disturbances, as well as changes in behaviour and mood. It can feel similar to a hangover, so it is essential not to look past the symptoms. For an individual who has consumed a lot of alcohol for a substantial amount of time, the symptoms have to be addressed as part of recovery.
The first symptoms of withdrawal include:
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Whole-body tremor
- Profuse sweating
- Heart failure
Stage 2: Moderate Symptoms
As the withdrawal symptoms from Stage 1 begin to alleviate, the symptoms of the second stage will start to take place. This typically begins within 12-24 hours after the last drink. However, it can take as long as three days for these symptoms to settle in. This is the dangerous part of detox, and you should be under medical supervision.
The symptoms of the second stage include:
- Higher blood pressure
- Respiration difficulties
- Irregular heartbeat
Stage 3: Severe Symptoms
Recovery patients tend to experience severe symptoms about 48-72 hours into detoxification. The most severe effects include delirium tremens (DTs) and seizures. One of the most dangerous aspects of these effects is that they can occur without warning.
Approximately 3-5% of patients will experience DTs. This is why medical supervision during alcohol detox is crucial. The priority is to keep you safe and comfortable as you continue along the recovery journey.
The third state includes symptoms of:
It’s important to keep in mind that this timeline varies depending on each unique person. The best way to keep track of the alcohol detox process is to have it monitored by a team of trained addiction treatment professionals. Alcohol detox is the first step of a sober and fulfilling life.
The Detox Method
Alcohol detoxification is the preparatory step before an alcohol rehab program. It can be safely performed at the hospital, where round-the-clock medical monitoring is recommended for heavy users. In most cases, the detox process involves 3 steps:
- Intake. The medical team will do a comprehensive review of drug, medical, and psychiatric histories of incoming patients to fully understand each situation.
- Medication. Many detox programs include medications that mimic the effects of alcohol to mitigate withdrawal symptoms. Medications may also target co-occurring disorders or general discomfort.
- Stabilization. The patient undergoes medical and psychological therapies to help them reach a balance of mind and body.
How Long Does Detox Last?
On average, the detox process lasts for 7-14 days. However, this can vary for different people and depends on a number of factors including:
- How much alcohol they have been consuming
- The severity of their withdrawal symptoms
- Their physical and mental functioning
- Whether they are also detoxing from other substances
- Whether they have any co-occurring physical or mental conditions
Following detox, patients will be ready to progress to an alcohol or drug rehab programme, where they will receive a variety of treatments, including intensive psychological therapy. Rehab often takes place in an inpatient environment, although there is a growing number of outpatient programs available.
Medications Used During Detox
Medication will be administered during alcohol detox when necessary. If that’s the case, hospital medical staff will ensure that everything is done carefully and safely. Part of the alcohol detox process includes keeping the patient’s system in balance and avoiding major physiological upsets. Some examples of medications used during recovery are:
Benzodiazepines (benzos) are commonly used to alleviate alcohol withdrawal symptoms and prevent alcohol withdrawal seizures. Seizures are one of the most common causes of fatality in alcohol withdrawal, so additional anticonvulsant drugs, such as Keppra, are often used as well.
Recovery After Detox
Once alcohol detox is completed, the next part of the recovery journey begins. The treatment program will vary depending on your situation and the severity of your addiction. However, no matter the addiction treatment, all patients receive the same core, quality service.
Inpatient hospitalization – otherwise known as residential treatment – is one of the most common ways to treat alcohol addiction. In an inpatient rehab program, the patient resides at the facility for the full duration of the program. Most programs last anywhere from 20 to 90 days but can be longer if needed.
One of the main benefits of inpatient rehab is 24/7 access to medical professionals during alcohol detox, as well as after. Each day will have a structured routine and include a variety of different methods towards treating alcohol addiction.
These methods include cognitive behavioural therapy, support groups, one-on-one therapy sessions, and aftercare support. Residential treatment removes all distractions and environmental triggers by placing you in a supportive and healthy community.
If you have decided to quit alcohol, it is important for you to get qualified professional help. Addiction Rehab Toronto has on-site detox facilities where medical staff will keep you safe and comfortable while you go through withdrawal. Once this process is complete, you will be able to stay for an alcohol rehab program that is tailored to meet your unique needs. Call us today for more information.