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alcohol abuse facts

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Alcohol detox is the first step toward overcoming a drinking problem. Detoxification is the natural process the body goes through to process and remove substances from the body. Although a natural process, alcohol detox can be dangerous and even life-threatening. This is because chronic alcohol abuse leads to dependency, which results in withdrawal symptoms when people quit drinking.

People who have been drinking large amounts for an extended period of time are more likely to experience negative side effects and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. However, anyone who is addicted to alcohol and struggles to stop drinking on their own can benefit from a medical detox. In fact, experts never recommend that people try to detox from alcohol at home.

Medical detox is the process of medical treatment that is combined with counseling and peer support. Throughout detox, patients have access to doctors and addiction specialists who can help them overcome their physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. Certified addiction treatment providers across the nation offer detox services in both inpatient and outpatient settings, so you can find the one that will meet your needs.

Whether you’re looking for help for yourself or a loved one, here is everything you need to know about alcohol withdrawal and the detox process.

symptoms of alcohol withdrawal

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Chronic drinking can lead to physical and psychological dependence. As a result, when people who are addicted to alcohol try to stop drinking or cut back on the amount of alcohol they consume, they will experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) refers to a set of symptoms that result from various changes in brain chemistry that have been affected due to alcohol abuse.

When a person with alcohol dependence suddenly quits drinking or significantly reduces the amount they are consuming, they can expect mild symptoms to show up as early as 6 hours after their last drink. Early alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:[1]

  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Shaky hands
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating

As time continues without a drink, these symptoms will worsen in severity. In addition, after 24 hours, people may begin experiencing more intense symptoms. These include:

  • Confusion
  • Racing heart
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens (vivid and hyper realistic hallucinations and delusions, also known as DTs)

It usually does not take a doctor to diagnose alcohol withdrawal. After all, these physiological symptoms are also accompanied by intense alcohol cravings. As a result, individuals who are addicted to alcohol can easily spot the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal within themselves – and most will go to any lengths to continue drinking in order to avoid going into withdrawal.

alcohol withdrawal timeline

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The exact duration of alcohol withdrawal varies from person to person. The alcohol withdrawal timeline is based on several factors, including the duration and quantity of one’s drinking, the presence of additional physical or mental health issues, and the person’s past experiences with detox. However, a general withdrawal timeline for alcohol is as follows:

  • Between 6-12 hours after a person’s last drink, they will begin experiencing mild withdrawal symptoms like headache, anxiety, upset stomach, and insomnia
  • After 24 hours, people with severe alcohol dependency may begin experiencing more serious symptoms, like visual or auditory hallucinations
  • Between 24-72 hours, alcohol withdrawal symptoms will peak. Individuals may be at the highest risk for seizures around 48 hours after the last drink. Similarly, less than 5% of individuals will experience delirium tremens (DTS) between 48-72 hours after they stop drinking[2]
  • After 72 hours withdrawal symptoms should begin to subside and level off
  • After 1-2 weeks, all physical withdrawal symptoms should be gone, however, some symptoms such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, and sleep disturbances will linger for several months.

Even though alcohol withdrawal is a fairly quick process, it is dangerous to detox from alcohol at home. Particularly in the case of chronic alcoholics, quitting alcohol cold turkey can be fatal. Some rare side effects that come at the risk of detoxing alone include:

  • Seizures
  • Anxiety
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Insomnia
  • Aspiration pneumonia
  • Kidney or liver dysfunction
  • Fever
  • Depression
  • Alcohol cravings
  • Hallucination

In order to prevent these difficult and potentially life-threatening side effects, it is always recommended that people who are addicted to alcohol seek medical attention for their detoxification needs.

symptoms of alcohol detox

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Detox for alcohol can be performed at both outpatient and inpatient facilities, but heavy drinkers or long-time alcoholics are encouraged to seek inpatient treatment because they require 24/7 monitoring. Regardless of whether a person is doing inpatient or outpatient detox, the process usually involves three stages: intake, medical stabilization, and aftercare planning.


Intake, sometimes referred to as admissions, is the first step of the detox process. During intake, patients will meet with medical and clinical staff who will conduct a comprehensive review of the patient’s substance abuse, medical, and psychiatric history. This helps the treatment team better understand the needs of the patient so they can develop an individualized substance abuse treatment plan to support the individual.

During intake, patients may be asked questions about:

  • How long they have been drinking
  • If they are addicted to any other substances
  • How often and how much they drink
  • What physical and psychological symptoms they are experiencing
  • One’s family and personal medical history
  • Any medications one may be taking
  • Past experiences with alcohol withdrawal, detox, or addiction treatment

Medical Stabilization

After intake is complete, patients begin the actual process of detoxification. Depending on the patient’s individual needs, he or she may be prescribed medications to help reduce the severity of their withdrawal symptoms. On the other hand, some medications may target symptoms of co-occurring disorders or general pain and discomfort.

The most popular type of medication that is used in medically-assisted alcohol detox programs is benzodiazepines. Since alcohol withdrawal can produce seizures and other uncomfortable symptoms, benzodiazepines like diazepam are able to prevent serious side effects and mitigate certain withdrawal symptoms. Patients who take benzodiazepines during detox will start with a moderate dose and they will be slowly tapered off of the medication until their withdrawal symptoms subside.[3]

In addition to detox-assisting medications, patients may also begin participating in therapies that will help support their mental health and ultimately their recovery. Throughout detox, patients will have access to medical and clinical care. Similarly, medical professionals will be prepared to intervene in the event of an emergency.

Once a patient has reached a stable place in their mental and physical health, it is time for the last phase of detox.

Aftercare Planning

The last stage of alcohol detox is aftercare or treatment planning. This is perhaps the most important step for attaining long-term sobriety. Alcohol addiction doesn’t go away simply because a person has completed detox. Instead, treatment for alcohol use disorder requires intensive therapy and peer support. After patients complete detox, they will meet with an addiction specialist to determine their treatment needs.

There are many alcohol rehab options with the two most common being inpatient or outpatient treatment. Rehab centers help individuals address unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns so they can replace them with healthier coping mechanisms that support sobriety. Detox alone is not a substitute for a comprehensive treatment program and ongoing care is vital for long-term sobriety.

Get Connected With an Alcohol Detox Near You

Successful withdrawal management is critical to the alcohol detoxification process. Without medical detox, the chances of effective recovery are slim. Plus, alcohol withdrawal is a potentially deadly process if someone attempts it alone. Instead, it is always recommended that people who are addicted to alcohol seek help from a professional detox center near them.

If you or a loved one have a drinking problem and are ready to get your life back on track, our team of dedicated treatment professionals is standing by, ready to help. Pick up the phone and give us a call today to get connected with an alcohol detox near you.