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Alcohol Withdrawal and Detox: What is it and how does it work?

Last Updated: November 6, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

While your body adjusts to having no alcohol in its system,  you may experience several side effects, including anxiety, headaches, nausea and more.

If you drink large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, you may experience withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly stop drinking. Withdrawal from alcohol may include mild symptoms and more serious symptoms that may be life-threatening.

During detox, a person stops consuming alcohol, which can lead to uncomfortable and dangerous withdrawal effects for those with moderate to severe addictions. Professional detox provide a safe environment that addresses these effects under the supervision of medical professionals.

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is a condition that occurs when someone who drinks heavily and regularly suddenly stops or largely reduces their alcohol intake.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it slows the functioning of the brain. When someone who drinks a lot and often stops or lowers their intake, the nerves become excited, leading to withdrawal symptoms that affect both the body and mind.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

A person may experience different withdrawal symptoms depending on the amount of alcohol and how often that person drinks. A variety of other factors will also affect this, but some common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Rise in blood pressure
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Muscle twitching
  • Trembling
  • Abdominal pain
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations

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Delirium Tremens

This is the most serious consequence of alcohol withdrawal. Delirium tremens usually occurs within two to four days after the last drink, and symptoms can last up to seven days.

It is important to recognize the symptoms of delirium tremens because it can be life-threatening. If someone is showing the following signs and symptoms of delirium tremens, seek help immediately:

  • Sudden and extreme confusion
  • Altered mental function
  • Abrupt mood changes
  • Body shakes or tremors
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep lasting longer than 24 hours
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Sensitivity to touch, light and sound
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

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Choosing Professional Detox for Alcohol Withdrawal

Trying to detox from alcohol by yourself can be dangerous. Receiving detox from medical professionals in a hospital or rehabilitation center is the safest way to deal with alcohol withdrawal.

Medical detox of alcohol involves clearing alcohol from the body under the supervision of doctors and medical staff. They’ll provide a safe environment and minimize any painful or uncomfortable symptoms that may arise during this process.

Signs You Need Professional Medical Detox

Someone who drinks heavily and regularly, especially over a longer period of time, is more likely to experience severe and dangerous withdrawal symptoms and may benefit from professional medical detox.

Other factors that would warrant the need for professional medical detox include:

  • Co-occurring psychiatric disorders
  • Pre-existing medical conditions
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Poor general health
  • Previous withdrawals from alcohol or other substances
  • Abuse of other substances in addition to alcohol

What to Expect During Alcohol Detox

Receiving detox in a medical setting like The Recovery Village Kansas City may seem scary, but it is actually the safest way to manage withdrawal symptoms. During this time, a person’s vital signs, including blood pressure, pulse, body temperature and breathing rate, will be monitored.

Certain medications may be administered to ease any uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that may occur. The most common medicines used to treat these symptoms are benzodiazepines like Valium or Ativan. Not only do they reduce these symptoms but they also decrease the likelihood that dangerous effects, such as delirium tremens, will occur. The individual will also have access to counselors and other healthcare professionals during this time.

How Long Does It Take To Detox From Alcohol

The length of a detox program will vary depending on the individual. Typically, the timeline depends on how long it takes to control a person’s withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms typically begin within eight hours after the last drink and peak within one to three days after the last drink; however, they generally last up to a week.

Detox is necessary for as long as withdrawal effects are present. The most important symptom to manage or prevent is delirium tremens, and this can occur within two to four days from the time of someone’s last drink.

The Recovery Village Kansas City offers an evidence-based medical detox program led by skilled and empathetic healthcare professionals. Our medical detox program is the first step in the path to recovery, and we provide a full spectrum of care, including inpatient rehab, partial hospitalization programs and more.

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