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process of alcohol detox

The Process of Alcohol Detox and What It Does for the Body

Some people are apprehensive about quitting drinking due to withdrawal symptoms, but alcohol detox is a necessary first step in treating alcoholism. The process impacts the body in many ways.

The Importance of Detox

During detox, alcohol is completely flushed from your body. Withdrawal symptoms typically subside within a couple of weeks after starting detox; however, this could take longer depending on the severity of your addiction. From there, you will be able to focus on other aspects of the recovery process such as different activities, therapies, counselling sessions and support options.

Alcohol is a depressant that your body begins to rely on over the course of months and years of drinking. Your brain eventually stops producing certain chemicals that it receives from alcohol, resulting in dependence on the drug. That is why, when you quit drinking, it takes time for your body to adjust. This is what causes withdrawal symptoms such as headache, fever, nausea, irregular heartbeat, and hallucinations.

While some people may only be affected by the minor effects of alcohol withdrawal, others may face extreme pain. Withdrawal symptoms can change quickly and aggressively, which is why it’s important to go through detox under the care of medical professionals. This is especially true for those who have a history of lung or heart disease.

Detox facility staff are able to help you manage your symptoms through various treatment techniques, including medication. This allows you to focus on your recovery and get better. Some addiction treatment centres include detox facilities.

Detox Withdrawal Symptoms

The alcohol detox phase can involve withdrawal symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening. Oftentimes, the longevity and severity of your addiction will play a role in the withdrawal symptoms you experience. Individuals who have struggled with years of heavy drinking are more likely to develop serious withdrawal symptoms like seizures or delirium tremens than those with shorter-term alcohol problems.

Minor symptoms of alcohol detox include anxiety, sweating, nausea, insomnia, and headaches. More serious symptoms include tremors, seizures, hallucinations, and disorientation. In extreme cases, the individual may suffer from delirium tremens. Although fewer than five percent of people develop delirium tremens, it can be life-threatening.

Due to the severity of some withdrawal symptoms, alcohol detox should be monitored by a medical provider, who can track and treat any symptoms that arise. They will also help you regain the physical strength you will need for post-detox recovery.


What Detox Does for the Body

Withdrawal symptoms can begin to surface as early as two hours after your last drink. While the most painful symptoms typically subside within the first week, some mild symptoms can last for several weeks to a year. There is no exact timeline as to when or what withdrawal symptoms you will experience; however, there’s a general outline of what to expect.

First Six to Twelve Hours

The initial symptoms of alcohol detox are mild but can quickly begin to worsen as time goes on. Some of the early withdrawal symptoms include headaches, anxiety, shaking, nausea, and irritability. During this phase, your body is ridding itself of toxins.

Day One

As you approach the end of the first 24 hours, symptoms may become increasingly severe. Alongside the effects felt from the first 12 hours, additional symptoms may arise, including disorientation, hand tremors, and seizures. Brain chemistry is altered as dopamine levels are stabilized.

Day Two

Similar to the first full day of detox, the most painful symptoms will continue into the second day. Hallucinations and panic attacks are common during this time as your body rids itself of alcohol and begins to strengthen its hold on sobriety.

Days Three to Seven

For the remainder of your first week in detox, different withdrawal symptoms may come and go. This is also the timeframe where you’re most at risk of life-threatening symptoms such as delirium tremens.  It is a dangerous period in addiction treatment, but you can mitigate the risk by being in a medically supervised environment.

By the time you’ve completed your first week of detox, many of the withdrawal symptoms will begin to taper off. While some symptoms may persist for a few weeks, most of them are minor and can be treated with medication if needed. This balances out the system and returns the body to pre-addiction health.

Even after the most serious withdrawal, symptoms have lessened, some people may experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) – the prolonged symptoms of detox. Generally, these symptoms include anxiety, low energy, trouble sleeping, and delayed reflexes, and can last from several months to a year.

The most uncomfortable detox withdrawal symptoms usually peak around 10-30 hours after the last drink and start to lessen by 40-50 hours. Although delirium tremens is unlikely, roughly 30% of those who get it will also develop aspiration pneumonia. A medically assisted withdrawal helps prevent serious complications, keeps track of the patient’s health condition, and relieves any painful effects. As the body works through recovery, it is returned to normal.

aspiration pneumonia

Detox Medications

When alcohol detox is treated in an inpatient addiction treatment facility, various medications may be used to reduce uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. They can also help keep a person’s body chemicals in balance, lowering the risk of serious complications. During detox, a medical professional will administer the medication and monitor its effects.


Benzodiazepines (benzos) are most frequently used to treat withdrawal symptoms during the alcohol detox phase. They are used to help calm your central nervous system and may also be prescribed to treat insomnia, anxiety, and muscle spasms. The medication comes in two forms: short-acting and long-acting. Usually, long-acting benzos are administered for three days or taken as needed. Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) and diazepam (Valium) are two types of benzos prescribed most often in an inpatient addiction treatment setting.


This medication helps reduce alcohol cravings during the detox stage. In the event of a relapse, naltrexone works by inhibiting the “high” feeling in the brain that alcohol may cause. Since the medication can stimulate withdrawal symptoms, it is recommended that you wait 7-10 days before taking naltrexone. It comes in two forms: tablet and injectable. The pill form of naltrexone is sold under the brand names ReVia and Depade, while the injectable form is known as Vivitrol.


Years of heavy drinking can significantly alter how the brain looks and works. This medication, sold under the name Campral, is prescribed to help your brain begin to function normally again after you quit drinking. Research studies have also started to look into whether or not acamprosate helps reduce the symptoms of PAWS including insomnia, anxiety, and restlessness. It also works to reduce alcohol cravings; however, it will not produce an unwanted effect if alcohol is consumed.


Unlike other medications, disulfiram works by producing severe reactions if alcohol is consumed. For instance, if you drink while on disulfiram, you will experience unwanted effects like facial flushing, nausea, headache, weakness, and low blood pressure. The negative effects are meant to deter you from continuing your drinking pattern. Disulfiram is not meant to reduce your alcohol cravings or restore brain functions like some other medications.


Getting Help

Seeking help for addiction is a huge step toward sobriety and returning to a healthier lifestyle. At Addiction Rehab Toronto, we respect that the decision to enter treatment is not one that is taken lightly. With empathy and understanding, we will guide you through a customized addiction treatment program that will help you return to a healthier, happy life. Contact us today: whether it is for you or a loved one, you will be glad you reached out.