Making the decision to quit drinking is a big step for anyone who struggles with alcohol abuse. People who are addicted to alcohol have drinking ingrained into their minds and bodies. Not only do their daily habits and routines include alcohol, but their bodies have become physically dependent on alcohol. Changing that physical dependence requires going through alcohol detox to remove all traces of alcohol from the body. Only then can the body physically heal and learn to function without alcohol. The idea of alcohol detox can be intimidating, but it is a critical first step towards sober living.
Why Is Alcohol Detox Necessary?
People who are addicted to alcohol drink so much and so regularly that their bodies become accustomed to the presence of alcohol. Their bodies become physically dependent on alcohol, meaning that the body relies on alcohol for some of its normal functions. When alcohol is removed from the system, the body experiences symptoms of withdrawal. For example, when people drink alcohol, dopamine levels in the brain go up, making the person feel a rush of pleasant emotions. When people drink alcohol at abusive levels regularly, their brains expect that dopamine rush to come from alcohol and stop producing dopamine without alcohol. Alcohol detox removes all traces of alcohol from the body so that it can begin to relearn how to function normally without alcohol.
What Happens During Alcohol Detox?
Sometimes people are leery of going through alcohol detox because they are worried that it will be too uncomfortable. Knowing what to expect when it come to alcohol detox symptoms can be reassuring. The process will vary from person to person depending on their personal health history, how long and how much they have been drinking, and their mental health. In general, people who have been drinking more alcohol for a longer period of time will have a longer, more intense withdrawal period. Typical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include anxiety, sweating, nausea, insomnia and headaches. Some people experience more severe symptoms such as tremors, seizures, hallucinations and disorientation. Although it is rare, delirium tremens, also known as the DTs, is a severe side effect of alcohol withdrawal. Roughly 3-5% of patients undergoing alcohol withdrawal will experience the DTs. Because this can be fatal, it is not advisable to go through alcohol detox at home. Detoxing under medical supervision provides a safer, more comfortable option.
While there is some variability from person to person, most people will go through the same basic stages of alcohol withdrawal. The alcohol detox process takes about one week, with some symptoms lingering up to one year later for some people. The overall process of alcohol detox looks like this:
- Stage 1: 6-12 hours This stage begins within hours of taking the last drink. As the alcohol wears off, the individual may experience symptoms such as headache, nausea, shaking, anxiety and irritability.
- Stage 2: 12-24 hours This stage finishes off the first full day without a drink. Symptoms from Stage 1 may continue and worsen. The individual may also experience symptoms such as hand tremors, disorientation and seizures.
- Stage 3: 24-48 hours Symptoms from the first full day continue. Hallucinations and panic attacks may also occur.
- Stage 4: Day 3-7 For most people, symptoms begin to abate after the first 2 days. Withdrawal symptoms may come and go for the rest of the first week without alcohol. Because this is the timeframe in which some people will experience delirium tremens, it is still a high risk time.
After the first week of alcohol detox, most withdrawal symptoms will wear off, but some may persist over an extended period of time. Some people will experience a condition known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome, a.k.a. PAWS, that can last up to a year after alcohol detox. Symptoms of PAWS include low energy, difficulty sleeping, delayed reflexes and anxiety.
Medical Treatment During Alcohol Detox
While the process of alcohol detox can sound daunting, it is the most important first step on a journey toward sobriety. Thankfully, medical treatment during alcohol detox can make the entire process more comfortable while ensuring that your safety and well-being. If you have any other medical concerns, such as heart or lung disease, detoxing under medical supervision will give you and your loved ones added peace of mind. By choosing to forgo alcohol detox at home in favor of detox at an inpatient rehab center, you can have access to medical supervision and treatments that can reduce the symptoms of withdrawal.
During alcohol detox, medical staff will monitor your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and body temperature to make sure that they remain within a normal range. The staff will be present to support you and answer any questions you may have about withdrawal. If your symptoms become too uncomfortable to manage, they may offer you certain medications to ease the discomfort. Common medications used to support alcohol detox include:
- Benzodiazepines: This class of drugs, which include diazepam (Valium) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium), calms the central nervous system. This type of drug can be used to treat symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety and muscle spasms.
- Naltrexone: Naltrexone reduces cravings for alcohol by blocking receptors in the brain that generate feelings of pleasure. Blocking these receptors helps manage cravings and, in the event of a relapse, prevents the typical good feelings that come with drinking. Because naltrexone can cause symptoms of withdrawal, it is best used after the first 7-10 days of alcohol detox.
- Acamprosate: Acamprosate may help with long-term symptoms of withdrawal, including PAWS. It may help to establish normal brain patterns, reversing the changes caused by years of alcohol abuse.
- Disulfiram: Disulfiram is used as a deterrent to drinking for people in recovery. People taking disulfiram will experience unpleasant side effects if they do consume alcohol. These negative side effects include facial flushing, nausea, headache, weakness, and low blood pressure.
- Topiramate: Topiramate is a newer drug that may help to curtail alcohol addiction by interfering with reward pathways in the brain. People taking topiramate may not experience the good feelings produced by alcohol, therefore reducing the desire to drink.
Holistic Support During Recovery
During alcohol detox and in the subsequent first weeks of recovery, the medical staff will be ready and available to offer the appropriate medical treatment needed to get through withdrawal. Blu By the Sea also offers supplemental approaches aimed at healing the entire body and mind. People who struggle with alcohol abuse often have a co-occurring mental health diagnosis. Our trained medical staff can offer psychological support through counseling and other therapies and medical treatment when necessary. Many people addicted to alcohol suffer from malnutrition, as they have neglected healthy eating habits in favor of drinking. Our staff includes a chef who will prepare healthy, well-balanced meals to restore any nutritional imbalances.
We also encourage healing your body through exercise, whether that includes yoga, walking on the beach, working out in our gym, or meeting with a personal trainer. This holistic approach can help you treat your physical and mental health needs, putting you on the best path to recovery. Our staff is committed to helping you move through alcohol detox and onto a clean, sober, and fulfilling life.