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Alcohol Detoxification

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

March 18, 2019

Alcohol detoxification is often considered to be the preliminary step to recovery. Depending on how often, and how much a person drinks alcohol, they can experience mild to acute withdrawal symptoms. Vitamins, lots of fluids, rest and a healthy diet are vital for healthy detoxification. It is also recommended to seek the help of a professional.

Alcohol detoxification works a lot like getting rid of your old stuff, except the new owner will be you, and the old stuff that you’re cleaning out is the alcohol. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you need to sell a house or a car, you probably didn’t sell it with all of your junk in it. You more than likely cleaned everything out before selling, so there would be a fresh start for the next person. Alcohol detoxification is the beginning to a fresh start, and is often the first step required for a healthy recovery.

What Is Alcohol Detoxification?

Detoxification is a preliminary step towards recovery when a person is flushes their system of alcohol (or other drugs). It is a body’s way of getting rid of an unwanted substance. When a person suffering from alcoholism tries to quit drinking, they will almost always have withdrawal symptoms, which can be uncomfortable, painful, frightening, and flat-out awful. Detox periods can be dangerous to go alone, and should be monitored by a professional so that variables like diet, fluid intake, rest, and medication are supervised.

When Is A Detox Necessary For Alcohol Abuse or Alcoholism?

When a long-term heavy drinker (alcoholic) abruptly stops drinking alcohol they may experience what is known as acute withdrawal–which can have serious symptoms such delirium tremens, hallucinations, seizures, other psychotic episodes, and heart complications. “Although some patients experience relatively mild withdrawal symptoms, disease processes or events that accompany alcohol withdrawal can cause significant illness and death” (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – NIAAA).

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Signs And Symptoms Of Alcohol Withdrawals

The more a person drinks, the more likely they are to experience withdrawal symptoms. The longer a person drinks, the more serious their withdrawals will be. Alcohol withdrawal is likely to occur within 6 to 8 hours of peak drunkenness. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are often intense and can have common symptoms, and also more severe symptoms:

Common symptoms include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Jumpiness or shakiness
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares
  • Not thinking clearly

Other symptoms may include:

  • Clammy skin
  • Enlarged (dilated) pupils
  • Headache
  • Insomnia (sleeping difficulty)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pallor
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Tremor of the hands or other body parts

A severe form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens can cause:

  • Agitation
  • Fever
  • Seeing or feeling things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • Seizures
  • Severe confusion
    (U.S. Library of Medicine)

The Importance Of Medically-Assisted Withdrawals

Withdrawals are mostly unavoidable if you’re suffering from alcoholism, but there are ways to make you feel more comfortable. Alcoholism is a defined by the U.S. National Library of Medicine as “a disease.” A disease wherein the person suffering can’t seem to stop drinking once they’ve started–yes, when your whole world has been overrun by alcohol, it can be pretty hard to quit.

There are about 18 million people suffering from an alcohol use disorder like alcoholism. Most of them don’t know how they got there and don’t know how to quit. Since the withdrawals are so intense, often leading to further complications including death, it is severely important that you don’t try to self administer a detoxification. The professionals at detox clinics are highly trained individuals who understand alcohol withdrawals and know how to treat the symptoms.

Diet And Vitamins For Alcohol Detoxification

Some people might not be able to hold down food when they are detoxing from alcohol, and can often experience flu like symptoms. Foods that are rich in vitamins and cleansing power will be vital. Nutrition is key–fruit, healthy foods, brothy soups, and lots of fluids are helpful as well. Vitamins like C, E, D, B, and Zinc are also said to aid in alcohol metabolization. Additionally, dandelion root and milk thistle can be helpful for cleaning the liver–since it takes a serious beating from alcohol abuse.

Along with that, “alcoholic patients may have electrolyte abnormalities due to alcohol-induced diseases, poor nutrition, or vomiting and diarrhea” (National Center for Biotechnology Information), therefore, medical professionals may use saline or electrolytes, and monitor a substantial amounts of fluid intake as well.

Medications Used During Alcohol Detoxification

“Pharmacological treatment is most frequently employed in moderate to severe alcohol withdrawals” (NIAAA) and may include: Benzodiazepines; Adrenergic Medication; or Anti Seizure Medication. Though acute withdrawals typically require some form of medication-assisted therapy, studies have shown that people who experience mild withdrawals are better off with supportive care alone. “In the context of non pharmacological therapy, supportive care consists of providing patients with a quiet environment, reduced lighting, limited interpersonal interaction, nutrition and fluids, reassurance, and positive encouragement” (NIAAA).

How Long Does A Detox Take?

Alcohol detoxification can take longer based on how much and how often a person drinks. According the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually occur within 8 hours after the last drink, but can occur days later. Symptoms usually peak by 24 to 72 hours, but may go on for weeks.”

It is very important to remember that detoxification is merely the first step of getting sober; recovery is a lifelong journey. Someone might relapse after being sober for 20 years–so sticking to your plan of recovery it is absolutely vital for long long-term sobriety–whether that means behavioral therapy, 12-step program, or others.

Alcohol Detoxification Timeline

The occurrence of different withdrawal symptoms strike at different times during the detoxification process. The following chart will make the withdrawal process easier to digest:

Timeline Chart From: Industrial Psychiatry Journal

What’s The Difference Between Outpatient And Inpatient Alcohol Detoxification?

Generally, drug treatment therapy will either be inpatient or outpatient, and the common purpose is to have professionals guide you through detoxification, withdrawals, and give you the tools to live a sober life. With both inpatient and outpatient detox, and sobriety altogether; you have to want it.

Outpatient detoxification therapy is usually only administered when a person has been using alcohol for a short period of time, and is pretty much healthy in all other respects. They may only be experiencing mild withdrawals. Inpatient detoxification therapy generally takes place on site and lasts a bit longer, because the patient is likely to be experiencing acute withdrawals and may not be able to maintain sobriety without supervision.

How To Find A Detoxification Clinic

No matter which way you slice it, alcoholism and alcohol abuse claim the lives of approximately 88,000 (NIAAA) people each year; a tragedy which can be avoided with proper treatment. If you or a person you love is struggling with alcohol abuse or another addiction, and sincerely want to get sober Contact us today to find out more about detoxification and alcohol recovery. You can clean your body and mind of alcohol, and we can help.

Industrial Psychiatry Journal - Clinical Management of Alcohol Withdrawal: A Systematic Review

National Center of Biotechnology Information - Electrolyte Abnormalities in the Alcoholic Patient

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol Facts and Statistics

United States National Library of Medicine - MedlinePlus - Alcohol Withdrawal

United States National Library of Medicine - MedlinePlus - Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse

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