Detoxing from alcohol can seem daunting, but it is the first and arguably most important step in becoming sober. Alcohol detox can be uncomfortable or even dangerous, but with professional help can be a safe experience.
Understanding Alcohol Detox
Alcohol detox is the process of allowing your body to adjust to the absence of alcohol. Continual alcohol use causes brain receptors to change their function to adapt to alcohol’s presence. This leads to dependence, a condition in which some level of alcohol in the blood is necessary for the brain to function correctly.
When alcohol use is stopped, the brain receptors that adjusted to the presence of alcohol must readjust to its absence. Brain receptors will not function correctly during this period, causing physical withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Detox is the period in which these physical symptoms last.
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Alcohol Detox Symptoms
Alcohol causes depression in neurological activity. As a result, the brain adjusts to become more active, balancing out the suppression that alcohol causes. When alcohol is suddenly stopped, alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur due to the brain’s increased activity level. Most symptoms during alcohol detox are related to overactive neurological signals and last until the brain readjusts.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Mood swings
- Confused thinking
- Difficulty sleeping
- Clammy skin
In severe withdrawal cases, delirium tremens can occur. This condition is often deadly without treatment and makes alcohol withdrawal dangerous.
How Long Does It Take To Detox From Alcohol?
Physically detoxing from alcohol will generally take about 7–10 days. The peak of symptoms typically occurs about 24–72 hours into detox, and their intensity decreases following the peak.
Alcohol Detox Timeline
The timeline for alcohol detox differs based on the individual, how heavily they used alcohol, how frequently they drank and many other factors. A typical alcohol detox timeline can include:
- Detox symptoms begin after 12–24 hours: Often, the first symptoms are a feeling of anxiety or jumpiness and headache. During the initial onset of symptoms, new symptoms develop, and existing symptoms intensify.
- Detox symptoms peak after 24–72 hours: The symptoms peak around 48–72 hours, with all symptoms present and at their worst. The peak is the most uncomfortable part of the detox and when dangerous complications are most likely to occur.
- Detox symptoms subside after three to seven days: After peaking, detox symptoms slowly subside and disappear one by one. The side effects will generally decrease more slowly than they appeared but will typically be gone within 7–10 days.
The Best Way To Detox From Alcohol
Unlike many other forms of detox that can be uncomfortable but are rarely dangerous, alcohol detox can have fatal complications in serious cases. Because alcohol withdrawal is the most hazardous form of withdrawal, the best way to detox from alcohol is under medical supervision. Detoxing at home can be dangerous and decrease your likelihood of success.
Medical detox will help quickly recognize and treat dangerous symptoms and allow treatment of uncomfortable symptoms. This makes the entire experience more bearable, increasing the likelihood of successful treatment.
What To Expect During Medical Detox
When going through medical detox, the first step is generally intake. During this step, you will be asked many questions about your alcohol use and general health. Your healthcare team will determine the risks you will likely face and formulate a plan to keep you as safe and healthy as possible.
Following intake, your care will shift to managing medical detox. Your medical team will ensure your comfort while treating developing symptoms. Expect frequent monitoring, especially as symptoms peak.
Once symptoms start subsiding, your medical team will discuss the next steps with you. Continued rehab treatment will follow medical detox and could include inpatient or outpatient rehab.
Alcohol Detox Medications
Medications used during medical alcohol detox target the receptors affected by alcohol withdrawal or the symptoms alcohol withdrawal creates. Some of the most commonly used alcohol detox medications include:
- Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines are the primary choice for alcohol withdrawal. These medications promote relaxation and help inhibit the overactivity of brain receptors that alcohol withdrawal causes. This reduces alcohol withdrawal symptoms by treating the underlying problem.
- Anticonvulsants: Anticonvulsants help reduce the risk of seizures occurring during withdrawal. They can also help minimize other alcohol withdrawal symptoms and cravings that often occur.
- Adrenergic medications: Adrenergic medications can help reduce some physical withdrawal symptoms, such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure. They will not, however, treat every withdrawal symptom or reduce the risk of seizures and delirium tremens like benzodiazepines will.
- Barbiturates: Barbiturates may help with alcohol withdrawal, similar to benzodiazepines. They can, however, be harder to dose correctly, increasing the risk of toxicity and overdose. For this reason, benzodiazepines are generally preferred over barbiturates.
- Baclofen: Baclofen is a type of muscle relaxant medication that can help reduce withdrawal symptoms and improve cravings during withdrawals.
The type of medications used differs by individual and situation. People withdrawing from alcohol should speak with their doctor about which drugs are best for them.
Find an Alcohol Detox Center Near You
Finding a good medical alcohol detox center is essential to safely and comfortably withdraw from alcohol. At the Orlando Recovery Center, we provide a professional yet relaxed environment that provides you with safety and peace of mind while completing your medical detox in an environment that will provide your best chance of effectively stopping alcohol.
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Dugdale, David C. “Alcohol withdrawal.” MedlinePlus, January 17, 2021. Accessed September 30, 2022.
Dugdale, David C. “Delirium tremens.” MedlinePlus, January 17, 2021. Accessed September 30, 2022.
Trevisan, Louis A.; Boutros, Nashaat; & et al. “Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal.” Alcohol Health & Research World, 1999. Accessed September 30, 2022.
Sachdeva, Ankur; Choudhary, Mona; & Chandra, Mina. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond.” Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, September 2015. Accessed September 30, 2022.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.