Alcohol Detox: Everything You Need To Know

Quitting alcohol is a brave and important step, especially for those with alcohol addiction. Alcohol detox involves removing alcohol from your body and managing withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can range from mild, such as headaches and nausea, to severe, like seizures and hallucinations.


Detoxing without medical help can be dangerous. Medical supervision ensures safety and provides the necessary support during this challenging time. Although detox can be tough, it is the first step in overcoming alcohol addiction and starting your recovery journey.

Alcohol Detox Overview

What Is Alcohol Detox?

Regular alcohol use causes the body to adapt to the substance. When drinking stops, the body needs time to readjust. This adjustment period, known as detoxification or detox, can trigger withdrawal symptoms as the body and brain work to rebalance without alcohol.

Alcohol affects the brain by interfering with neurotransmitters, which help brain cells communicate. To cope with alcohol’s effects, the brain changes how it functions. As the brain readjusts during detox, withdrawal symptoms emerge. These symptoms can be physical and emotional, such as anxiety, nausea, and tremors.


Detox can be very unpleasant and even dangerous due to these symptoms. That’s why it’s important to undergo alcohol detox under medical supervision. Medical professionals can provide support and treatments to ease withdrawal symptoms and make the process safer.


Detox programs help individuals stop drinking while managing withdrawal symptoms, reducing the risk of relapse, and preparing them for further treatment. This comprehensive approach ensures a safer and more effective transition to sobriety.

Risks Of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal can be extremely dangerous and even life-threatening. Unlike withdrawal from most other substances, alcohol withdrawal can have severe consequences, including death. Around 10% of people undergoing detox treatment experience severe symptoms.The severity of alcohol withdrawal depends on several factors, such as age, drinking patterns, and biological sex. However, certain groups of people are more likely to experience severe alcohol withdrawal, including:


    • Those with pre-existing health conditions
    • Individuals with a history of alcohol withdrawal
    • People dependent on sedative medications
    • Those with high blood pressure
    • Individuals with low potassium levels
    • People with low platelet counts
    • Those with a family history of severe alcohol withdrawal

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

When people quit drinking after abusing alcohol, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. For some, these symptoms are minor and include:


    • Anxiety
    • Irritability
    • Insomnia
    • Decreased appetite
    • Alcohol cravings


However, heavy drinkers may face more severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. These severe symptoms can include:


    • Fever
    • Tremors in hands and arms
    • Disorientation or confusion
    • Sweating
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • High blood pressure
    • Increased heart rate


Severe symptoms often appear 48-72 hours after the last drink. In extreme cases, delirium tremens may occur. Anyone experiencing severe symptoms should seek medical care immediately.


Individuals with the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal syndrome may experience delirium tremens, a potentially fatal condition. Symptoms include hallucinations, seizures, severe disorientation, extreme tremors, inability to regulate blood pressure or heart rate, organ failure, and impaired brain function.

The Importance of Medical Supervision During Alcohol Detox

Medical supervision during alcohol detox is essential for safety. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and unpredictable, requiring professional management. Healthcare providers can administer medications to ease discomfort and monitor vital signs to prevent complications. Without medical help, detox can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Professional support ensures a safer detox process and better prepares individuals for the next steps in their recovery journey.

Alcohol Detox Timeline

First Six to Twelve Hours

Most people will begin to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms within the first 6-12 hours following their last drink. During this early stage, your central nervous system starts to feel the impact of no longer receiving the sedative effects of alcohol.


Within the first 6-12 hour period, symptoms may include:


    • Nausea
    • Hand tremors (also known as “the shakes”)
    • Anxiety
    • Trouble sleeping
    • Irritability


These early symptoms indicate that your body is starting to adjust to the absence of alcohol. It’s important to monitor these symptoms and seek medical guidance if they worsen.

Day One

As you approach the end of the first 24 hours of detox, symptoms may become increasingly severe. Alongside the initial symptoms from the first 12 hours, additional symptoms may include disorientation, stronger hand tremors, and even seizures.

During the 24 to 72-hour mark (phase two of detox), symptoms will peak. The risk of seizures is highest during this period. Other severe withdrawal symptoms can also appear, such as:


    • Nausea
    • Fatigue
    • Changes in mood (anxious, irritable)
    • Brain fog
    • Hallucinations


These symptoms highlight the importance of medical supervision during detox to manage risks and provide necessary care.

Day Two

On the second day of detox, the most painful symptoms continue. Hallucinations and panic attacks are common as your body eliminates alcohol. There is also a high risk for seizures during this time.

Days Three to Seven

During days three to seven, some people may experience delirium tremens (DTs), which are severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. These include vivid hallucinations and delusions. Although only about 5% of individuals with alcohol withdrawal experience DTs, those who do may also suffer from:


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

After One Week

After one week, most of the severe withdrawal symptoms should subside. However, some individuals might continue to experience mild symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and mood swings. It’s important to stay patient and maintain a supportive environment during this phase.

Treatment Options

Home Detox for Alcohol

Mild alcohol addiction can usually mean mild withdrawal. However, it is best to seek medical advice from a healthcare professional about the risks involved with your individual situation. Alcohol withdrawals can be deadly if you aren’t careful.


If approved by a healthcare professional for at-home detoxification, you can anticipate experiencing mild symptoms of withdrawal as listed above.


During a home detox, the following practices may help:


    • Hydration: Keeping yourself hydrated during alcohol detox will assist your body with naturally flushing out any relevant chemicals.
    • Balanced Diet: Eating healthy, nutrient-rich foods will support your body’s healing and fuel you as your body adjusts to the lack of alcohol it has gotten used to.
    • Rest: Be sure to get plenty of rest and maintain a regular sleep schedule, allowing your body to continue healing.


If you choose to do a home detox, it is ideal to check with a medical professional to ensure that it is safe for you to do without medical supervision. During the detox process, if you begin to experience more severe symptoms, seek medical attention as soon as possible.


The likelihood of experiencing significant or life-threatening alcohol withdrawal depends on several factors. Drinking patterns influence the risk. People who drink heavily but not daily, such as binge drinkers, are less likely to develop physiological dependence that would lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. People who drink daily or nearly every day are more likely to develop physiological dependence and, therefore, experience withdrawal.


There are many options to help with the alcohol detox process. Some are safer and have higher rates of success than others.

Medically Supervised Outpatient Detox

Medically supervised outpatient detox is an option where individuals are prescribed medications for alcohol withdrawal to take at home. While convenient, it can be challenging to find physicians comfortable with this approach due to less medical oversight and the higher risk of complications from medication misuse. Despite these challenges, outpatient detox can be effective for some, providing a balance of professional guidance and personal comfort during the withdrawal process.

Medically Supervised Inpatient Detox

Traditional detox programs are medically supervised inpatient or residential programs where individuals stay overnight and are monitored by medical staff. These programs are often part of hospitals or medical centers, providing a safe environment for managing withdrawal symptoms.


Some residential treatment programs include a detox option on-site, making it easier to transition to the residential program once withdrawal symptoms subside. This seamless transition ensures that individuals can move directly into addiction treatment without interruption.


Rehab programs that do not offer detox may require individuals to complete detox before being admitted. This requirement ensures that patients are physically ready to participate fully in their addiction treatment program.

Medications Used During Alcohol Detox

Various medications can assist in managing withdrawal symptoms and supporting recovery during alcohol detox. Each medication serves a specific purpose, whether it’s easing anxiety, reducing cravings, or deterring alcohol use. It’s important to understand how these medications work and their role in the detox process. Let’s explore some common medications used during alcohol detox.


Benzodiazepines (benzos) are commonly used to treat withdrawal symptoms during alcohol detox. They help calm the central nervous system and can also address insomnia, anxiety,, and muscle spasms.


Benzos come in two forms: short-acting and long-acting. Typically, long-acting benzos are administered for three days or taken as needed. Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) and diazepam (Valium) are two types frequently prescribed in inpatient rehab settings.


Naltrexone helps reduce alcohol cravings during the detox stage. In the event of a relapse, naltrexone works by inhibiting the high feeling that alcohol may cause. Since the medication can stimulate withdrawal symptoms, it is recommended that you wait 7-10 days before taking naltrexone. It comes in 2 forms: a tablet and injectable. The pill form of naltrexone is sold under the brand names ReVia and Depade, while the injectable form is known as Vivitrol.


Acamprosate, sold under the brand name Campral, is used to help the brain function normally again after you quit drinking. Research suggests it may also reduce symptoms of post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), such as insomnia, anxiety, and restlessness. Additionally, it works to decrease alcohol cravings without causing adverse effects if alcohol is consumed. This makes acamprosate a valuable tool in maintaining sobriety and supporting long-term recovery.


Disulfiram is another medication used in the treatment of alcoholism. Unlike other medications, disulfiram works by causing severe reactions if alcohol is consumed. For example, drinking while on disulfiram can result in facial flushing, nausea, headache, weakness, and low blood pressure. These unpleasant effects are intended to deter you from drinking. Disulfiram does not reduce alcohol cravings or restore brain function. Instead, it serves as a deterrent by making the act of drinking highly uncomfortable, encouraging abstinence from alcohol.

Aftercare and Additional Treatment

In many cases, aftercare for alcohol use disorder is just as important as the detox process. That’s why after the withdrawal symptoms subside, many individuals seek mental health treatment to address the emotional and psychological toll of alcohol misuse.


Support groups and individual counseling via psychiatry can provide crucial benefits, helping individuals continue their healing journey. These forms of therapy offer support and strategies for maintaining sobriety.


Additionally, some individuals may already be enrolled in an alcohol rehab program, whether inpatient or outpatient. In these cases, detox is just the first step in a comprehensive treatment plan. Whatever the scenario, completing detox is one of the most critical steps in the treatment of alcohol addiction.

Finding Help and Support

You can locate alcohol detox programs in your area through several methods. If you have health insurance, contact your provider for a list of approved in-network programs. Additionally, use a rehab directory to find a treatment center close to you.


If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism and seeking treatment options, reach out to a treatment provider today. Getting professional help is a crucial step towards recovery and long-term sobriety.


Detox is a crucial first step in the treatment of alcohol addiction. It safely manages withdrawal symptoms and prepares individuals for further treatment. While detox alone is not a cure, it lays the foundation for long-term recovery by addressing the physical dependence on alcohol. With proper medical supervision and subsequent support, individuals can begin their journey toward a healthier, sober life.

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