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Detoxing from alcohol isn’t just a matter of willpower. It typically involves withdrawal symptoms that can be dangerous or even fatal. That’s why stopping ‘cold turkey’ without medical help is not recommended.
Because alcohol withdrawal can place your life at risk, it’s critical to seek professional help to detox safely. There are several options available to those at risk.
An alcohol detox program supports and guides you through withdrawal. Programs often include medications to help reduce symptoms and care for medical and mental health conditions.
You’re also more likely to stick with an alcohol detox program than if you were to attempt detox alone.
Typically, you can expect an alcohol detox program to include:
‘Detox’ means to detoxify or remove toxins/poisons from your system. Detox alone isn’t treatment. However, it’s the first step toward recovery for people dependent on alcohol.
When someone with alcohol dependence suddenly stops drinking, they might develop withdrawal symptoms. This usually occurs within 6 to 24 hours after their last drink.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
People addicted to alcohol are likely to experience some withdrawal symptoms when they quit drinking. However, withdrawal can also occur after periodic drinking.1
The initial hangover varies in intensity and time. It can last for hours or several days, but most people will feel better within one day.
Alcohol withdrawal worsens over the first few hours and days. It lasts anywhere from a few days to a week or more, depending on the severity of the alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Some people experience weeks or months of withdrawal symptoms, known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome.2
Mild symptoms can begin as early as 6 hours after your last drink. They include:
More severe symptoms occur between 12 to 48 hours after the last drink.
These symptoms include hallucinations around 12 to 24 hours after stopping drinking and seizures within the first two days. You may see, feel, or hear things that aren’t there.
Delirium tremens (DTs) usually start between 48 to 72 hours after your last drink. These are rare, yet severe symptoms and include delusions and vivid hallucinations.
People who experience DTs may also have:
You may have an AUD if you answer yes to two or more of the following questions.
In the past year, have you:3
Generally speaking, the more alcohol withdrawal symptoms you experience, the more severe your AUD is.
There are various types of alcohol detox programs:
Inpatient detox involves living at a hospital, detox clinic, or rehab center during treatment. You’ll receive around-the-clock care and support.
This treatment option offers additional services but usually costs more than other alcohol detox programs.
Inpatient treatment isn’t as common as it used to be. However, these programs are suitable for people with serious medical or mental health issues. They’re also very helpful for those without stable home environments.
Outpatient detox provides treatment during the day, but participants live at home. In some cases, outpatient detox may be as simple as visiting a healthcare professional regularly for medication.
This type of detox takes place outside of a treatment center. In most cases, you’ll travel to the treatment facility each weekday for assessment and/or medication.
The first session typically lasts between 1 to 2 hours. In this session, doctors perform a physical exam. Each follow-up session typically lasts around half an hour.
Outpatient treatment is generally safe and effective for mild or moderate alcohol withdrawal.
This type of treatment works best if you:
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) involves using medication with counseling and behavioral therapies to provide a holistic treatment approach. During MAT, it’s also essential to address other health conditions.
The most common drugs prescribed to treat AUD in MAT are:
These medicines don’t cure AUD. Rather, they’re effective in treating AUD symptoms.4
Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) address alcohol addictions that don’t require detox or around-the-clock supervision.
IOPs allow people to continue with their routine, day-to-day lives in a way that residential treatment programs don’t.
People in intensive outpatient programs live at home. IOPs are sometimes used after inpatient programs to help people easily adapt back into their families and communities.
IOPs are designed to:
Partial hospitalization or day treatment involves living at home and attending treatment at a hospital or clinic at least 5 days a week.
PHPs can be an alternative to residential or inpatient treatment or a step-down from one of those programs.
Many people consider detoxing from alcohol at home. They may feel that being at home makes the challenging situation easier to deal with.
Some feel more comfortable and safe detoxing in their home. However, home detox can be dangerous. This is especially true when people don’t understand the withdrawal alcohol timeline and the risks that come with it.
Many people believe that detoxing from alcohol isn’t as dangerous as detoxing from other drugs. This isn’t true.
There are severe, potentially life-threatening risks involved with detoxing from alcohol. These risks increase when you attempt to detox alone.
When you stop drinking alcohol, the body reacts with withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are painful, challenging, and may persist for weeks. Without medication, the process is even harder.
Quitting alcohol suddenly can cause severe physical symptoms, including:
Although heart failure from alcohol withdrawal is rare, you never know how your body will react to detox until you go through it.
Additionally, withdrawal symptoms may be worse or unpredictable if you used other substances while drinking. For example, drugs like heroin, cocaine, or meth.
For some people, the pain and discomfort is so bad that they begin drinking again. It can end up being a cycle of trying to quit but being unable to because of withdrawal symptoms.
Many people with alcohol addiction also struggle with other medical conditions, including:
People often use alcohol to self-medicate. However, when they stop drinking, these disorders can worsen.
Some people may not even realize they’re dealing with mental health problems until they stop drinking.
By joining an alcoholism treatment program instead of quitting cold turkey, you benefit from care and support that addresses alcohol withdrawal and any co-occurring disorders.
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