What Is Alcohol Detoxification?

Alcohol detoxification (detox) is defined as the natural process that occurs in the body as it attempts to rid the system of waste products and toxins from excessive, long-term alcohol consumption. Alcohol detox in a treatment setting is usually accompanied by medication, medical observation, and counseling.

Detoxification is a period of medical treatment, usually including counseling, during which a person is helped to overcome physical and psychological dependence on alcohol.

- National Institutes on Health
People who have been drinking heavily for a long time are more likely to experience negative side effects during detox, some of which can be dangerous.

Prolonged alcohol abuse can lead to tolerance and biological changes that create a false homeostasis. Disrupting this balance and restoring the user to a healthy state is a process that is as essential as it is delicate.

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The Process Of Detoxification

Alcohol detoxification is the preparatory step before a longer treatment program. Detoxification can be safely performed at both inpatient and outpatient facilities, but round-the-clock medical monitoring is recommended for heavy users. In most cases, the detox process involves 3 steps:

  1. Intake. The medical team will do a comprehensive review of drug, medical, and psychiatric histories of incoming patients to fully understand each situation.
  2. Medication. Many detoxification programs include medications that mimic the effects of alcohol to mitigate withdrawal symptoms. Medications may also target co-occurring disorders or general discomfort.
  3. Stabilization. The patient undergoes medical and psychological therapies to help them reach a balance of mind and body.

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Side Effects Of Alcohol Detox

Although medically-assisted detox limits some of the negative side effects the user experiences, some are unavoidable. Different side effects will appear during the 2 phases of alcohol detox.

Phase 1: During Acute Withdrawal

Phase 1 occurs within hours of an alcoholic ceasing consumption of alcohol and continues for days or weeks. This is generally when the most severe side effects occur, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Convulsions
  • Whole body tremor
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Profuse sweating
  • Shakiness
  • Hypertension
  • Heart failure

Phase 2: During Early Abstinence

The second and longer phase of alcohol detox occurs over months as the brain slowly begins to regulate and get back to normal functioning. This is called Post-Acute Withdrawal Symptom and includes symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Diminished appetite
  • Mood swings
  • Depression

Drugs Used In Alcohol Detox

Part of the detox process includes keeping the patient’s system in balance and avoiding major physiological upsets. Sometimes medications are necessary to do this. Benzodiazepines, including Librium, Valium, and Ativan, are commonly used for alcohol treatment because they reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms and also prevent alcohol withdrawal seizures. Seizures are among the most common causes of fatality in alcohol withdrawal, so additional anti-convulsant drugs such as Keppra are often used as well.

While Benzodiazepines have been proven effective in treating or preventing certain symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, it is imperative that a recovering alcoholic only use medically recommended amounts of the drugs. Benzodiazepines are addictive substances in their own right, and use should be closely monitored.

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Dangers Of Detoxing Alone

Especially in the cases of long-term alcohol abusers, detoxing cold turkey can be dangerous and even fatal. Although rare, some of the severe side effects of alcohol detox include:

  • Seizures
  • Anxiety
  • Aspiration pneumonia
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Insomnia
  • Headache
  • Kidney or liver dysfunction
  • Fever
  • Depression
  • Intense cravings
  • Extreme nausea
  • Hallucinations

It is always recommended to seek medical attention for an alcohol detox to mitigate these side effects.

Life After Alcohol Detox

Detox is merely the first step of treatment for people trying to overcome their alcohol addiction. Ridding the body of alcohol will not cure alcoholism; it clears the mind and heals the body so that a person suffering from alcohol addiction may pursue full treatment. To find out more about alcohol detox and treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.

Published:

Author

Jeffrey Juergens

Photo of Jeffrey Juergens
  • Jeffrey Juergens earned his Bachelor’s and Juris Doctor from the University of Florida. Jeffrey’s desire to help others led him to focus on economic and social development and policy making. After graduation, he decided to pursue his passion of writing and editing. Jeffrey’s mission is to educate and inform the public on addiction issues and help those in need of treatment find the best option for them.

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Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional:

Theresa Parisi

Photo of Theresa Parisi
  • Theresa Parisi received her bachelor’s degree in Addiction Science and Psychology from Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota in 2010. She is currently working towards her master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. She is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) by the Florida Certification Board. Theresa is passionate about recovery having gone through addiction herself.

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Sources

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Cascade Behavioral Health Hospital

Tukwila , WA

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Newport Academy – Teen Rehab Center

Port Townsend , WA

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Sequoia Detox Centers

Spokane Valley , WA

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Moonlight Mountain Recovery – Nampa

Nampa , ID

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Valiant Recovery – Kelowna

Kelowna , BC

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Duffy’s Napa Valley Rehab

Calistoga , CA

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Azure Acres Recovery

Sebastopol , CA

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Bayside Marin Treatment Center

San Rafael , CA

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Newport Institute for Young Adults

Sunol , CA

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The Camp Recovery Center

Scotts Valley , CA

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Moonlight Mountain Recovery

Pocatello , ID

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Highland Ridge Hospital

Midvale , UT

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Deer Hollow Recovery & Wellness

Salt Lake City , UT

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The Nestled Recovery Center

Las Vegas , NV

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SV Recovery Center

Sun Valley , CA

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Gloria Recovery Center

Los Angeles , CA

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