Most Americans drink at least occasionally. Further, close to 1 in 6 Americans binge drink, taking the weekend to consume large amounts of alcohol. In fact, 1 in 12 Americans binge drinks at least weekly. That can quickly lead to alcohol use problems, where you start to have withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink, when you experience cravings, and when you start using alcohol during the day – just to keep symptoms away or to reduce stress enough to work or function. In fact, alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction is so common that 10.2% of the U.S. adult population or 28.3 million people qualified as addicts in 2020.
Alcohol is socially accepted, common, and even encouraged. It’s also dangerous, easy to become addicted to, and contributes to significant harm to your life, your health, your career, and your family. But, what happens when you decide to quit? In most cases, alcohol detox is the first step.
Alcohol detox is the medical monitoring of alcohol withdrawal, usually with a process in place to monitor health, mental wellbeing, and to prevent side effects. In some cases, this includes medication like naltrexone, acamprosate, disulfiram (Antabuse), or nalmefene. In other cases, you’ll be asked to go through the withdrawal symptoms, with the support of a clinical staff to keep you comfortable. In most cases, you’ll also get emotional and psychological support, as well as assistance to ensure you get the fluids, nutrition, and any interventions necessary to get you through detox safely. This includes monitoring for symptoms of dangerous complications like delirium tremens.
If you’re doing medical detox, you’ll probably spend 3 to 7 days in a detox facility. Afterwards, you’ll move into a rehab center with the general population or into an outpatient treatment center. In every case, you’ll have to keep checking in with your doctor for the full extent of the medication, which can be several months.
If you’re not on a medication assisted program, you’ll normally stay in a detox clinic for anywhere from 7 to 14 days. If you’ve been drinking heavily for more than 3-5 years, you’ll probably need 21 or more days. And, if you develop complications, you could require even longer. However, the latter scenario is unlikely.
For most people, the alcohol detox timeline will look something like this:
Check In – You’ll check into the clinic, and you’ll have your possessions checked and put away. You’ll go through a mental and physical health screening, which might include tests to see when you last drank alcohol. You’ll be moved into a room, which may be private or not depending on the clinic. From there, you’ll meet the nurses and staff who will be taking care of you, you’ll be introduced to your peers, and you’ll have the opportunity to make yourself comfortable.
Withdrawal Starts – Withdrawal normally starts between 4 and 14 hours after your last drink. If you don’t drink every day, that could take longer. However, it will start with light cravings and anxiety. In most cases, people in early withdrawal stages also experience stomach cramping and pain, which might translate into nausea or even vomiting depending on how much you usually drink. Often, people are already in this stage when they check in.
Symptoms Escalate – Early withdrawal symptoms escalate quickly over the first 24 hours after your first drink. During this time, you’ll likely have extra medical attention and may even be put on an IV drip to prevent dehydration. This depends on your facility and how they feel you’re doing. Here, you’ll experience increases in early symptoms, as well as new ones. Most people feel like they have a cold or flu with general body pain, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and heart palpitations. Psychological and emotional side effects include anxiety, confusion, and panic – so you’ll normally get clinical support for this as well – with many clinics using benzodiazepines to relax the body and mind, effectively preventing panic attacks and seizures. However, depending on your facility, that may not be the case.
Symptoms Plateau – Symptoms normally plateau or level out after the first 3 days and then remain steady over this period. Here, you’ll experience the same symptoms you did during the escalation phase, but without further escalation. Here, it’s crucial that you stay hydrated, so it’s very likely you’ll be on an IV drip or your fluid intake will be monitored. Often, you’ll also have monitored nutrient intake and medication to help you stay calm, because ongoing panic and anxiety can be significant.
Symptoms Withdraw – Symptoms usually start to get better after the first 5-7 days. You’ll notice you feel less tired, less nauseous, and you have more energy and emotional energy. That doesn’t mean you can leave detox. However, it does mean you’re on the mend. In most cases, once this starts, you’ll be in detox for anther 5 – 7 days and from there can go on to the rest of your treatment.
Delirium Tremens is a common complication of alcohol use disorder withdrawal, affecting about 3-5% of all individuals withdrawing from alcohol. However, it’s significantly rarer in clinical settings. If you do develop delirium tremens, you can expect the plateau phase of withdrawal to extend for another 10-14 days. You’ll also be at a significantly higher risk of seizures and the more serious grand mal seizures, but with medical attention, you’ll receive medication to minimize those risks and mitigate the impacts if they do happen.
No. The definition of detox is medically assisted withdrawal. However, it’s also dangerous to withdraw from alcohol on your own. Alcohol interferes with the central nervous system, meaning that withdrawal can cause seizures. In addition, you’ll be vulnerable to dehydration, choking, and hurting yourself during a panic or paranoia attack. Most people withdrawing from alcohol experience at least mild seizures, and these can cause significant harm. Even dehydration from diarrhea and vomiting can cause unexpected death.
The best option is always to get medical monitoring, where you’ll receive the medication, you need to withdraw safely.
If you’re drinking more than you should be, are experiencing cravings, and are experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking, alcohol detox is a good choice. Help getting off of alcohol is the first step in your journey to recovery, but it is an important one. Without that medical help you could cause significant harm to yourself.
A detox clinic can help you to withdraw from alcohol safely, comfortably, and with a minimum of time. In addition, in a classic 2-week program, you’ll already start receiving therapy, emotional support, and the building blocks to move into a treatment facility from the detox center.
Asana Recovery provides a full continuum of highly effective drug rehab and alcohol rehab programs. If you have questions for yourself, or your loved one, contact us today to speak in complete confidence with one of our experienced and caring addiction treatment team.