What to Expect From Alcohol Detox
Quitting alcohol is a challenging endeavor in many ways. Socially, psychologically, and physically, it presents a lot of unanswered questions that may keep you from pursuing a life of sobriety. If you’re considering getting sober but are afraid of withdrawal, you’re not alone! In this blog, I’ll clear up some misconceptions and provide you with an in-depth guide on alcohol detox, so you can make the most effective and safe decision for yourself.
*This is a special guest post from Kelsey Brown, a copywriter at Nova Recovery Center. For more about Kelsey, check her full bio at the end of the article.
Why Quit Alcohol? 11 Benefits of Sobriety
You may be thinking about quitting alcohol for many different reasons, but the truth is, an alcohol-free life has several great benefits.1 Here are just a few to consider:
- You’ll consume fewer calories.
- Your skin may become clearer.
- You may sleep better.
- Your liver will thank you.
- You’ll decrease your risk of getting cancer.
- Your immune system will get stronger.
- You’ll have more energy.
- You’ll have fewer digestive issues.
- Your memory may improve.
- You’ll be able to focus and think more clearly.
- You’ll have more money to spend on other things.
If you’re thinking about dropping alcohol from your life, there’s probably at least one good reason. Whether you’re looking for ways to be healthier or you’ve realized you have a serious problem with alcohol, the fact that you’re thinking about quitting drinking is a telltale sign that it may be a good idea.
What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Drinking?
If you’ve made the decision to stop drinking for good, you should know that things will most likely get worse before they get better. (I know. But don’t give up yet!)
Over time, as you drink more and more alcohol on a regular basis, your body becomes accustomed to having alcohol and becomes dependent on it. If you abruptly stop, you’ll throw your body into a state of confusion, as it struggles to maintain its regular functions without the chemicals it has become accustomed to. This is called withdrawal.
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is the medical term that is used to describe the physical and psychological symptoms a heavy drinker experiences when they significantly reduce their alcohol consumption or stop completely.2 In extreme conditions, alcohol withdrawal can be deadly. However, the severity of withdrawal symptoms varies greatly from person to person.
Before you get discouraged and give up on the idea of ever getting sober, it’s important to keep things in perspective and remember that withdrawal is just the first step of getting sober. While it is an essential part of the recovery process, it’s not going to last forever and there are ways to get through alcohol withdrawal comfortably and safely. (We’ll get to that later!)
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
You’re probably curious to know exactly what withdrawal will feel like before it happens. While no one can predict exactly what you will experience, there are several factors that can affect how long your withdrawal symptoms last, what kinds of symptoms you experience, and how severe they may be, such as:
- Your age
- Your alcohol abuse habits (how often you drink, how much you drink at a time, and how long you’ve been drinking)
- If you’ve experienced alcohol withdrawal before
- Your drug use history (if you’re currently using other drugs or have in the past)
The alcohol withdrawal experience will be different for everyone but having a general idea of what to expect can help reduce anxiety and stress. Depending on your past and current alcohol abuse habits, you may experience some or all of the following symptoms during alcohol withdrawal:3
- Alcohol cravings
- Mood swings
- Heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
|6-12 hours after your last drink||● Shakiness|
|12-24 hours after your last drink||● Hand tremors|
● Severe disorientation
|2 days after your last drink||● Seizures|
● High blood pressure
● Excessive sweating
|5-7 days after your last drink||● Physical symptoms decrease in intensity and eventually dissipate|
● Reduced physical and psychological symptoms may continue for several weeks
Alcohol withdrawal can last anywhere from five to seven days, but it’s difficult to determine exactly how long it will take for any one person. Typically, most withdrawal symptoms will decrease within a week’s time and you’ll start feeling more like yourself again.
Although it doesn’t happen for everyone, in some cases, prolonged side effects of alcohol withdrawal may last for several weeks. This is called Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). If you’re suffering from PAWS, you may feel more irritable, anxious, dizzy, have problems falling asleep and staying asleep, have low energy, and memory problems.
PAWS can make life in recovery difficult and may even make you regret your decision to stop drinking. Understandably, PAWS is discouraging, but medication-assisted treatment after detox can help to manage those uncomfortable side effects so you don’t give in to your desire to drink.
Delirium Tremens: What You Need to Know
In rare cases, a person may experience what is known as delirium tremens, a more severe case of alcohol withdrawal with life-threatening symptoms. Delirium tremens only occurs in five percent of people who experience alcohol withdrawal, so your chances of getting it are very, very low.
Symptoms of delirium tremens usually appear within 48 to 96 hours of the last drink, but it may also take up to 10 days for any symptoms to show. They typically include:
- Severe confusion and disorientation
- Muscle tremors
- Mood swings
- Exhaustion and deep sleep that lasts for several days
If you experience delirium tremens, it’s very important that you complete detox under the supervision of a doctor, as some of the symptoms can be very dangerous for your health if they are left untreated.
How Do I Know If I’m Experiencing Withdrawal?
If you experience two or more of the following symptoms a few hours or days after quitting drinking, you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal.5
- Excessive sweating
- Hand tremors
- Trouble sleeping
- Nausea or vomiting
If you’re still unsure about it, your doctor may also be able to provide a medical diagnosis and recommendations for next steps.
Treating Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal can be really uncomfortable or even dangerous, so it’s a wise decision to get treatment for it, especially if you’ve been heavily drinking for years and have a higher risk for severe withdrawal symptoms. If you’re worried you might need medical supervision during withdrawal, a detox program may be right for you.
Alcohol detox is the process of completely flushing all the alcohol from your body. It’s the first stage in an addiction treatment program and the first step to overcoming alcohol use disorder. If you’re enrolled in a medical detox program for alcohol addiction, you’ll go through withdrawal under medical supervision in a comfortable and safe facility.
While you’re in detox, you’ll consult with doctors and nurses who are trained to recognize and treat the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, so you can have a comfortable and safe experience. Even if you do end up having PAWS, your medical treatment team will take care of you and make sure you are comfortable at all times.
At-Home Alcohol Detox vs. Medication-Assisted Detox
Many people avoid getting sober because they fear the withdrawal process and they worry that it will be uncomfortable and difficult. However, this doesn’t have to be the case.
If your alcohol abuse has been mild, you may be able to detox at home with no issues. However, if you’re a frequent and heavy drinker, it would be much safer to detox in a medical facility like a detox center or a hospital. The choice is yours to make. Here’s a chart to help you compare your options.
|Alcohol Detox at Home||Medication-Assisted Detox in a Detox Center|
|● Care is provided by friends or loved ones|
● Home environment for detox (may have alcohol nearby if loved ones drink)
● No professional medical treatment for withdrawal symptoms
● Emergency care available by phone
● No referrals for ongoing treatment after detox
● Cost is free
|● Care is provided by doctors and nurses|
● Safe, sober, and private environment in which to detox
● Medical treatment to ease the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms
● Emergency care available onsite
● Referrals for ongoing treatment after detox
● Cost varies depending on the facility, detox services, and amenities (may accept insurance)
It’s important to remember that all detox centers and programs are different, but the chart above is just a general comparison. To confirm the amenities, services, programs, and payment options available at a detox center, you’ll need to call and speak with an admissions representative.
A Quick Overview of the Alcohol Detox Process
While all detox programs vary, the general process is the same. Here’s a brief overview so you know what to expect.
- Evaluation: A treatment team will evaluate your drug use history and severity of dependence and/or addiction. They will also seek to diagnose any co-occurring medical or mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Your treatment team will use the results of this evaluation to design a detox program for you.
- Stabilization: The goal during this phase of detox is to achieve a sober and stable state of being, both physically and mentally. Withdrawal happens during this phase, so your treatment team may also prescribe medications to help you cope with uncomfortable physical and psychological symptoms.
- Guidance into drug treatment: After you’ve achieved sobriety, your treatment team will recommend options for ongoing treatment based on your needs. Alcohol detox is an important part of the recovery process, but detox alone will not keep you sober for long. Addiction treatment, such as inpatient or outpatient rehab, will resolve the emotional, social, psychological, and cognitive issues associated with addiction.
Although it may seem like overkill, ongoing addiction treatment in rehab is often a very necessary thing, especially if your goal is to get sober and stay that way for good. A 2012 John Hopkins study found that despite a post-detox relapse rate of 65 to 80 percent, recovering addicts who stayed in treatment after detox were 10 times more likely to stay sober.6
Can’t I Just Quit Cold Turkey?
You can definitely quit cold turkey if you choose to. However, there are a few risks and downsides associated with that. For example:
- You may relapse more quickly because you won’t have professional support.
- There may be serious health risks involved, especially if you’ve been drinking heavily for several months or years.
- You’ll be sober, but only physically. The emotional, social, psychological, and cognitive issues that contribute to your drinking will still be there. (And they’re likely to pop up again down the road.)
Enrolling in Alcohol Detox
Whether or not you enroll in an alcohol detox program is your choice, but if you do decide to go for it, enrolling in a program is fairly simple. Ask your doctor and loved ones for recommendations, or if you have friends who have detoxed at a detox center, ask them for recommendations too. You can also do a simple Google search to find detox centers near you.
Most detox centers will provide information about detox programs, payment options, amenities, and center locations on their websites. However, you can also call and speak with an admissions representative to get more information. If a program is worthwhile, they will screen you over the phone to ensure that their detox center is the right fit for you. If it isn’t, they will refer you to a different program.
Once you find a program you believe is right for you, you can start your detox program and begin your journey to sobriety. The road to sobriety is different for everyone, but it IS possible to get sober and recover, however you choose to get there.
Kelsey Brown received her Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism from Missouri State University. Since then, she has become an active member of the substance abuse treatment industry, writing articles on a variety of subjects related to substance abuse, including detox, rehab, sober living, and mental health issues geared toward individuals who are seeking treatment or are in recovery. Kelsey is currently a copywriter at Nova Recovery Center. In her spare time, Kelsey enjoys outdoor activities, like hiking, camping, and kayaking.