Alcohol detox and treatment overview
Alcoholism is a debilitating and life-threatening disease, and unlike other illicit substances it is easily accessible and socially accepted. Drinking is often seen as a harmless way to unwind, but the reality is that thousands of people across the UK are suffering with alcohol addiction. No one purposely sets out to become an alcoholic but drinking habits can spiral out of control very quickly leading to destructive behaviours, damaged health and ruined relationships.
Detoxing from alcohol can be extremely dangerous if not done properly and quitting cold turkey can result in an agonising withdrawal period.
This page will explore how to safely detox from alcohol and the treatment methods and medications used during an alcohol detox.
Remember: Detox by itself isn’t treatment for alcohol addiction, but a very important step in the recovery journey.
What is an alcohol detox?
An alcohol detox is the first part of treatment for alcohol addiction. A detox refers to the process by which the alcohol is completely flushed from your body.
Drinking alcohol increases dopamine levels in your brain, which tricks you into believing that the alcohol is making you feel good or helping you deal with something emotionally difficult. The result is that you keep drinking to achieve this dopamine release, but at the same time you’re altering other brain chemicals that are enhancing feelings of depression. If you continue abusing alcohol then, over time, the dopamine effect decreases until it no longer exists. However, by this stage it is likely you will have developed a dependence on alcohol, and when this intense need for alcohol is established, addiction takes hold.
Once you stop drinking, your body will need time to adjust to the absence of alcohol before it can start releasing and regulating chemicals by itself again. This is when your body begins to detox, causing withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fever, nausea, irregular heartbeat and hallucinations.
Withdrawal symptoms typically subside within a few weeks after you begin your detox, however, this could take longer depending on the duration of alcohol abuse. Once you’ve completed your detox you will then be able to focus on a longer treatment program.
The detox phase can be extremely uncomfortable and going through an alcohol detox without medical support increases the chances of relapse. Drinking alcohol after starting a detox is especially dangerous as it may result in alcohol poisoning which can be fatal.
The importance of alcohol detox
What happens during an alcohol detox?
Each person’s detox experience will differ depending on certain factors such as age, gender and the severity of addiction. If you’re undergoing detox treatment in a residential rehab facility, the process is usually as follows:
Consultation. Their medical staff will carry out a thorough medical and psychiatric profile on each client.
Medication. An alcohol detox is usually medically assisted, and clients will be prescribed medications that mimic the effects of alcohol to ease withdrawal symptoms. Medications may also be used to manage co-occurring disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Stabilisation. Clients participate in an intensive recovery programme to help them reach a stable and balanced state of mind.
During the detox process, you will experience a range of physical and psychological symptoms. These can be extremely uncomfortable but can be alleviated with the correct medication.
Physical symptoms include:
- Mild fever
- Cold sweats
- Mood swing
How does an alcohol detox affect your body?
Alcohol has a sedating effect on the body and causes significant changes to the brain. It acts by blocking the release of certain chemicals, and this eventually slows down brain function. It’s this reaction that produces the calming effects that people find so satisfying.
However, over time, heavy alcohol abuse can lead to permanent chemical changes in the brain that result in an inability to function properly without alcohol in your system. This leads to alcohol dependence and eventually, addiction.
At this stage, many people believe that they can stop drinking alcohol and allow their body to detox on its own. However, changes have already occurred in the brain by this stage, resulting in an overwhelming physical need for a drink, which is how withdrawal symptoms occur. Due to the unpleasantness of these symptoms, people return to alcohol in order to deal with the physical and mental distress.
Signs and symptoms of alcohol detox
- Shaky hands
- Abdominal pain
- High temperature or chills
- Tics and tremors
- Irregular heart rate
Psychological symptoms include:
- Mood swings
- Irritability and agitation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Intense cravings for alcohol
Acute alcohol withdrawal refers to the symptoms experienced by heavy drinkers after long periods of abuse and can result in serious health complications that require immediate medical assistance. It’s during this time that you’re most at risk of losing consciousness, having seizures or experiencing hallucinations and delirium tremens.
Facilities like The Lighthouse clinic have extensive experience in treating acute alcohol withdrawal and our team of dedicated specialists will prescribe the appropriate medication in order to relieve you of the symptoms and ensure you are safe and stable.
If you are detoxing without support and you recognise any of the following symptoms, please seek help immediately.
- Racing heart
- High blood pressure
- Heavy sweating
Alcohol detox timeline
The duration of an alcohol detox can last anywhere from five to 14 days and is determined by how much you are drinking, your age, sex, general health, medical history and any co-occurring illness. If there is a history of seizures or other health complications your detox may be carried out at a slower pace to ensure you’re able to cope.
While each person’s experience of alcohol detox will differ, there is a general timeline that the detox phase usually follows.
24 to 48 hours
Minor withdrawal symptoms usually begin during this time. These symptoms may include headache, tremors, and stomach upset. If you’re only experiencing minor withdrawal, you can expect your symptoms to peak at 18 to 24 hours and start to subside after four or five days.
48 hours to 72 hours
Some people may experience severe withdrawal symptoms at this stage, called delirium tremens. Symptoms can include a very high temperature and fast heart rate and seizures.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually peak around this time, and in very rare cases can even last up to a month.
While the above timeline roughly outlines what you can expect to experience in the first few days of your alcohol detox, you might find that symptoms continue for a few weeks afterwards while your body fully adjusts to the absence of alcohol. The first few weeks after detox are vital during recovery, and this will be when you’re at your most vulnerable.
Alcohol detox and treatment methods
There are a few methods used when it comes to treating alcohol addiction. The most effective treatment is a supervised medically assisted detox alongside an intensive therapy and treatment programme. The medication is prescribed to help you cope with the physical dependence, while different therapies are used to help you identify and overcome the underlying psychological issues which have led you to addiction.
Alcohol detox and withdrawal symptoms can change quite quickly, shifting from mild to severe in just a matter of hours. This is why it’s so important that you detox in an environment where you have medical support available. Treatment providers will be able to help alleviate some of the most painful symptoms by prescribing medications such as: Benzodiazepines, Naltrexone, Acamprosate or Disulfiram.
Inpatient rehab facilities provide a safe environment for patients struggling with alcohol addiction. It is the most intensive form of treatment but has a higher success rate when it comes to maintaining sobriety. Not only will you receive 24-hour care and medical assistance, but you will be surrounded by like-minded individuals who share your experiences.
Outpatient detox programmes allow you to attend a facility for detox medications and other treatments without staying full time. This option is only recommended for those with less severe forms of alcohol abuse since individuals. You must bear in mind that choosing this option means you will still be around drinking triggers and other influences.
Alcohol detox can certainly affect your mental health, which is why counselling can be extremely valuable to your overall wellbeing during this time. Counsellors can provide support during the hardest parts of detox and look to identify any underlying factors that may have led to your addiction.
Recovery is a lifelong commitment that continues long after you’ve left rehab and support groups can be very helpful in helping you maintain your sobriety. If you’ve chosen not to detox at home then support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, offer a place for you to discuss challenges with other people who are in alcohol recovery. This will provide you with motivation to finish your detox and continue with your recovery.
The benefits of residential detox
A residential detox refers to treatment which requires you to stay at a facility to complete your alcohol addiction treatment. Recovery programmes can last anywhere between one to three months but will ultimately depend on your situation.
Detox is an extremely important part of an alcohol addiction treatment, and there are many risks associated with going it alone. In a residential rehab facility, you will receive around-the-clock care with medical professionals on hand to assist you where necessary. Another benefit of residential alcohol detox is the removal of triggers and temptation. Coping with alcohol detox and withdrawal alone is extremely challenging and it’s during this stage that many people relapse.
The Lighthouse clinic offers a safe environment managed by experienced doctors. Our clients receive 24-hour care, and a full medically assisted detox followed by a treatment programme tailored specifically to their needs.
Can you detox from alcohol at home?
Detox and withdrawal are a crucial part of moving forward in your recovery, but without the correct support it can carry serious risks.
Many people consider a home detox because it’s more convenient for them and means they won’t have to put things on hold to move into a residential rehab. While it’s understandable that someone would want to go through an alcohol detox in the comfort of their own home, there are severe risks involved, especially if they’re not familiar with what to expect.
Quitting alcohol ‘cold turkey’ is extremely dangerous and should not be done without speaking to a medical expert. By abruptly stopping consumption, the brain is unable to adapt quickly enough to the change, resulting in life-threatening reactions such as seizures or organ failure. Rather than quitting alcohol so suddenly, it’s better to reduce the amount you’re drinking. This approach will allow the brain to adjust, which might lower the risk of experiencing dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
How to get help with alcohol detox
You’ve decided that you no longer want to live your life stuck in the cycle of addiction, but you don’t know where to start when it comes to seeking help.
You must first decide which form of treatment suits your circumstances. While there are free services provided by some councils and charities, these often include help with detox and not much else in terms of trying to resolve the deeper issues.
Choosing a private rehab clinic can seem daunting but it’s worth doing the research into the type of facility you’d like. If you’re unsure of the type of treatment you need, find a rehab you like the sound of and give them a call. A member of their team will give you a consultation and talk you through which treatment options are best for you.
What happens after an alcohol detox?
Although the detoxification stage is a vital aspect of the recovery process, it’s not the only part. Once you’ve completed your alcohol detox, you must work on the psychological issues surrounding your addiction.
If you’re undergoing detox through a free service or a charity, you won’t receive the same level of care that you would at a residential facility. If this is the case, it’s important you seek additional support through counselling and support groups in order to stay sober.
At Step by Step Recovery, our treatment programmes are tailored to each of our clients based on their individual needs. We don’t believe in making our clients follow a generic recovery programme because what works for one person won’t necessarily be relevant to another. We want to help them identify the underlying causes of their addiction and provide them with the tools they need to live a life free from addiction.
Leaving rehab can feel daunting for a lot of reasons, but you won’t be totally alone. We also offer lifetime aftercare to all clients who complete their treatment with us as well as supported living accommodation to those that need it.
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A page revised the 6 of July of 2021, by Danielle Byatt, a Level 4 addictions counselling, Level 5 in Leadership & Management, BA applied social work. and Treatment Director at Step by Step Recovery.
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