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Side Effects of Alcohol Detox
For people with alcohol use disorder, the side effects of detoxification can be frightening. For others, the effects are too much to handle alone. Despite one’s best effort to quit alcohol, the withdrawal symptoms of detoxing can become too severe, causing them to turn back to alcohol.
Knowing what the side effects are and what to expect during detox can help make the process less frightening. Undergoing detox in an inpatient or residential facility also allows for medical monitoring and assistance throughout the process.
The side effects of detoxing can be mild or severe and life-threatening. In fact, one in 20 people undergoing alcohol detox will experience a very serious side effect known as delirium tremens or DTs. Heavy or long-term alcoholics should consider inpatient or residential detox in order to avoid potentially life-threatening complications.
Why Does Alcohol Detox Cause Side Effects?
When someone consumes large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, the brain goes through major changes. Alcohol works as a depressant on the brain, slowing down how it functions. When this slowing occurs on a regular basis, the brain works to counteract this regular depressive state.
In order to do this, the brain increases the production of stimulating chemicals, such as serotonin or norepinephrine. While someone consumes alcohol on a regular basis, this increased production balances out.
However, when a person stops consuming alcohol, it no longer works to slow the brain down. The brain is still producing increased stimulating chemicals. When this happens, it becomes overly stimulated, resulting in the withdrawal symptoms associated with detox.
The Symptoms and Side Effects of Alcohol Detoxing
Detox symptoms are different for everyone and depend on the following withdrawal risk factors:
- Co-Occurring Substance Abuse
- Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorder
- Family History of Alcohol Use Disorder
- Quantity of Alcohol Consumed and for How Long
While these factors can affect the symptoms a person experiences during detox, there is a predictable pattern and timeline for detox symptoms. Withdrawal can be broken down into three stages. Not everyone will experience each stage. For example, a person with mild to moderate alcohol use disorder may only experience stage one symptoms. In contrast, a long-term, heavy drinker is more likely to experience symptoms of all three stages.
The average time for alcohol detox is five to seven days. However, one person may complete detox within a few days while another struggles and experiences symptoms for a week or more. Withdrawal risk factors play a significant role in detox.
Mild Side Effects of Stage One
Stage one of withdrawal begins within six to 12 hours after the last drink of alcohol. As the stimulating chemicals in the brain overpower the diminishing depressive effects of alcohol, symptoms begin to surface. These symptoms can include:
- Changes in Mood – depression, anxiety, and mood swings
- Cravings for alcohol
- Insomnia and fatigue
- Mild sweating
- Nausea, vomiting, and a loss of appetite
- Minor confusion and problems thinking
- Muscle spasms
- Mild heart palpitations
- Mild tremors or shakes
Moderate Withdrawal Symptoms of Stage Two
Stage two begins 12 to 24 hours after the last alcoholic drink. A person continues to experience symptoms from stage two, though they can become more severe in nature. In addition to the increase in those initial symptoms, other symptoms begin. The following symptoms can affect vital signs and may be an indicator that medical monitoring is necessary:
- Frequent, loose bowel movements
- Irregular heartbeat
- Rapid, irregular breathing
- Increased blood pressure
- Mental confusion
- Increased irritability
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that the rates of ER visits for chronic alcohol use complications, such as withdrawal, increased by 58 percent between 2006 and 2014.
Severe Side Effects in Stage Three
Stage three begins between 48 and 72 hours after alcohol cessation. This is the most severe stage of symptoms and often causes people to stop detoxing. It is also the stage that poses the greatest risk for medical and life-threatening complications. If you experience stage three detox symptoms, medical monitoring and detox assistance are often necessary and advised. These symptoms can include:
- Profuse sweating
- Severe agitation
- Impaired thinking and increased to severe confusion
- Hallucinations that can be auditory, tactile, and visual in nature
- Weight loss
- Delirium tremens (DT)
Three to five percent of those reaching stage three symptoms experience delirium tremens (DT). This severe alcohol withdrawal symptom can cause life-threatening complications.
Life-Threatening Delirium Tremens (DT)
Delirium tremens is the most serious side effect of detoxing and alcohol withdrawal. In addition to the symptoms seen in stage three, DTs can affect normal body function. DTs can affect breathing, cause dangerously high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and interfere with the ability to regulate body temperature. It may precipitate respiratory and cardiovascular failure and, if left untreated, can result in coma or death.
In fact, the current mortality rate for patients with DTs, despite treatment, is five to fifteen percent.
Not everyone experiences DTs and certain factors can increase the risk. These include:
- Co-occurring medical illness
- Heavy, daily alcohol consumption
- History of withdrawal seizures
- Those over 60 are more likely to experience detox complications and DTs
- Abnormal liver functions
If someone has any of these risk factors, medically monitored detox is necessary in order to avoid possible complications or death. Inpatient and residential detox centers provide 24/7 monitoring and medications to help minimize detox side effects and respond to possible complications.