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Alcohol use disorder, formerly known as alcoholism, is a condition where individuals are unable to control alcohol consumption. At some point, many people with alcohol use disorder make the decision to quit and completely rid their bodies of alcohol. 

The first step to quitting alcohol is detoxing. There are a few options to choose from, including: 

At Home Detox

Many people think detoxing from home is the ideal place to begin recovery. They are able to relax in the comfort of their own home and detox without others knowing. Unfortunately, detoxing at home can increase the risk of health complications during withdrawal. In many cases, home detox is not advised. In addition, home detox often increases the risk of alcohol relapse.


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Outpatient Detox

Outpatient detox offers the ability to detox from alcohol at home and around your work schedule. Many programs offer medication assisted detox and check-ins during the detox process. After detox, they offer counseling and support groups to help you achieve long-term sobriety.

Inpatient or Residential Detox

Inpatient or residential detox facilities offer medical professionals who walk you through the detoxification process and help minimize any withdrawal symptoms. They provide 24-hour care and monitoring, as well as counseling after detox, helping to reduce the risk of relapse.

Symptoms of alcohol detox and withdrawal can be serious and life-threatening. The most serious complication, delirium tremens, occurs in one out of 20 people undergoing detox. For this reason, medical professionals do not recommend detoxing alone or at home.

Alcohol Use Disorder and Detox

Alcohol works on the brain as a depressant. When a person drinks heavily, over a long period of time, the brain becomes dependent on the substance. As a result, the brain begins producing increased levels of serotonin or norepinephrine in order to create a balance. While this helps balance out the brain while alcohol is available, it becomes problematic when alcohol consumption stops.

Alcohol detox is the cessation of alcohol consumption. When you stop drinking, the brain no longer receives the depressant effect of alcohol. However, it is still producing higher amounts of stimulating chemicals. This overstimulation causes most of the withdrawal symptoms associated with detox. The severity of symptoms depends on many factors, including:

  • Age – Older individuals often experience more severe withdrawal symptoms or have a harder time dealing with symptoms.
  • Gender – Studies show that men often experience more severe and frequent withdrawal symptoms.
  • Co-Occurring Substance Abuse or Mental Health Disorders – Both of these factors can affect both the symptoms and the severity of the withdrawal symptoms.
  • Family History of Alcohol Use Disorder – A family history of alcohol abuse increases the risk and severity of withdrawal symptoms
  • Length of Alcohol Consumption – The length of time and the frequency of alcohol consumption can increase the risk and severity of detox withdrawal symptoms.
  • Quantity of Alcohol Consumed – The more a person drinks, the more the body adjusts to the effects. Heavy drinkers are likely to experience more severe detox and withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol Detox and Associated Symptoms

To better understand how to detox from alcohol, it is necessary to know what happens during the stages of detox and how long detoxing from alcohol will take. On average, alcohol detox lasts for five to seven days. Lighter drinkers may experience shorter times and reduced symptoms. 

In contrast, heavier drinkers can experience prolonged detox and increased severity of symptoms. Alcohol detox breaks down into three main stages. Each stage produces various symptoms and risks. In addition, detox begins immediately after your last drink.


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Stage One – Early and Mild Symptoms

Heavy drinkers, or those who have been battling alcohol use disorder for many years, often begin the day with a drink. This is because they have symptoms of withdrawal, and alcohol subdues those effects. 

Stage one of detox begins within six hours of your last drink. When the alcohol wears off in your brain, it no longer receives the depressive effect. At this point, the stimulating chemicals start to take over, resulting in the initial symptoms. The symptoms of stage one include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Alcohol cravings
  • Mild sweating
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Mild shakes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Problems thinking
  • Fatigue
  • Heart Palpitations

These symptoms usually peak between 10 to 30 hours and subside by 40 to 50 hours. For mild to moderate drinkers, detox symptoms can end during stage one, with no other additional symptoms. Because of this, mild to moderate drinkers can often successfully detox on their own. However, once symptoms progress to stage two, medical monitoring is necessary to reduce the risk of complications.

Stage Two – Moderate Symptoms

Stage two typically begins 12 to 24 hours after alcohol cessation. The symptoms experienced during stage one continue. In addition, more intense symptoms that can affect vital signs begin to occur. These can include:

  • Dehydration
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Rapid breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Fever
  • Confusion
  • Anger and irritability
  • Seizures
  • Auditory and visual hallucinations

Stage Three – Severe Symptoms

Stage three of detox begins 48 to 72 hours after you stop drinking. These symptoms can be severe and life-threatening and require medical monitoring. In three to five percent of cases, people can experience delirium tremens (DT), the most severe symptom of alcohol detox. DT’s can cause:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Dangerously high heart rate and blood pressure.
  • A negative effect on the body’s ability to regulate normal body temperature
  • Impaired blood and oxygen circulation throughout the body

In addition to DT’s, stage three can also cause other severe symptoms, including:

  • Severe agitation
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations – these can include tactile, visual, and auditory disturbances
  • Profuse sweating
  • Seizures

How to Choose Where to Detox from Alcohol

Making the choice to detox is a big step towards your recovery. Before deciding to take this step, it is crucial to speak with your doctor and discuss detox and possible withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, your doctor may approve self-detox at home based on your history. However, they may recommend a medically supervised detox in order to deal with possible complications. Always follow the guidance of your health care provider.

If you and your doctor make the choice to detox at home, there are some important things to consider and prepare for, including: 

  1. Begin by clearing your schedule. Take a few days off from work so you can focus on your detox and the beginning of your recovery journey. 
  1. Next, talk to your family and friends about your detox plan. It is important to have someone with you during your detox in case symptoms escalate. They will be available to contact medical support if an emergency arises. 
  1. Last, but certainly not least, remove all alcohol from your home. While this may seem obvious, it is an essential step. Withdrawal symptoms, such as urges, may become strong and easy access to alcohol can be detrimental.

Professional Detox Vs. At-Home Detox

When you are considering how to detox from alcohol, there are pros and cons to both at-home and professional detox. Considering both options can help you make an educated decision about which program will work best for you.

At-Home Detox

  • Comfort of your own home
  • Can work around your schedule and family
  • No financial cost
  • Can detox with anonymity and confidentiality
  • Increased risk of health effects or medical emergency
  • Inability to receive medication to relieve withdrawal symptoms
  • Increased risk of relapse

Professional Detox

  • Medical professionals monitoring withdrawal symptoms and health
  • Administration of medications to help ease withdrawal symptoms
  • Counseling available to help promote recovery and reduce the risk of relapse
  • Can be expensive
  • Often require inpatient treatment and missed time from home


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Harvard Health Publishing. “Alcohol Withdrawal.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/alcohol-withdrawal-a-to-z.

NHS Choices, NHS, www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/treatment/.

Trevisan, Louis A., et al. “Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1998, www.pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/61-66.pdf.

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