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Alcohol Detox Programs

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What is an Alcohol Detox Program?

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:

  • An intake exam so staff can assess the type of support you’ll need. You may take blood tests, discuss your health and drinking history, and also undergo tests to evaluate your physical and mental health.
  • Detox support, which may include medicine for withdrawal symptoms and care for other health problems. The goal is to help you become mentally and physically stable. Medical providers will regularly check your temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing during this process.
  • Help to get into treatment so you can break your addiction.
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An addiction specialist can help answer your questions and guide you through the intake process.

What Does “Detox” Mean? 

‘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:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Shakiness
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations

What to Expect During Alcohol Withdrawal 

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

6 hours after the last drink

Mild symptoms can begin as early as 6 hours after your last drink. They include:

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

12 to 48 hours after the last drink

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.

48 to 72 hours after the last drink

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:

  • Confusion
  • Racing heart
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Heavy sweating

Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

You may have an AUD if you answer yes to two or more of the following questions.

In the past year, have you:3 

  • Drunk more or for a longer period than planned? 
  • Tried to cut down or stop drinking but couldn't? 
  • Spent a lot of time drinking alcohol or recovering from it? 
  • Felt a strong desire to drink? 
  • Found that drinking alcohol, or being sick from it, often affected your family life, job, or school? 
  • Kept drinking even though it caused issues with your family and/or friends? 
  • Given up or reduced activities that you enjoyed so you could drink? 
  • Engaged in dangerous activities, like driving drunk or having unsafe sex, while drinking or after drinking?
  • Kept drinking alcohol even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious? Or when it was contributing to another health problem? 
  • Had to drink more to feel the same effects of alcohol you once felt?
  • Had withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wore off?

Generally speaking, the more alcohol withdrawal symptoms you experience, the more severe your AUD is.

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Types of Alcohol Detox Programs 

There are various types of alcohol detox programs:

Inpatient Detox

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

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:

  • Have good physical and mental health
  • Live in a stable, supportive home
  • Don’t have a long history of alcoholism

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

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 Program (IOP)

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:

  • Establish support systems
  • Manage relapse
  • Provide coping strategies

Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)

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.

Self-Detox (Not Recommended)

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.

Insurance Can Help Pay for Addiction Treatment

Call now to speak with a specialist about your insurance benefits.

Risks of Quitting Drinking Cold Turkey

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.

Physical Health

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:

  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Heart failure
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)
  • Death

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.

Mental Health

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:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Personality disorders

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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Updated on June 16, 2022
6 sources cited
  1. Becker, Howard C. “Alcohol dependence, withdrawal, and relapse.” Alcohol research & health : the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism vol. 31,4 : 348-61.
  2. Mirijello, A., D’Angelo, C., Ferrulli, A. et al. Identification and Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. Drugs 75, 353–365
  3. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), MedlinePlus, February 2022
  4. MAT Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions, SAMHSA, April 2021
  5. Hayashida, M. “An overview of outpatient and inpatient detoxification.” Alcohol health and research world vol. 22,1 : 44-6.
  6. Myrick, H, and R F Anton. “Treatment of alcohol withdrawal.” Alcohol health and research world vol. 22,1 : 38-43.

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