What Is Alcohol Detoxification?

When someone uses alcohol or drugs regularly, their body gets used to the substance and changes the way it works to compensate for the effects. Alcohol detoxification can be very unpleasant and even life-threatening, so it is always recommended to detox from alcohol under medical supervision.

Alcohol and drugs impact the way the brain functions by interfering with the brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. To maintain balance, the brain adjusts. If the person then stops using the substance, it takes time for the brain to re-adjust to the lack of substance effects. The initial period of readjustment involves withdrawal symptoms that are typically the opposite of the substance effects, and this is referred to as detoxification.

When someone says they are “detoxing,” they mean that they are experiencing uncomfortable physical and emotional symptoms as their brain and body struggle to restore healthy functioning when they stop using a substance they were using regularly. Detoxification programs, often called detox, provide medical services to ease withdrawal symptoms and increase the likelihood that someone doesn’t resume substance use.

Featured Treatment Centers Offering Alcohol Detox

Risks Of Alcohol Withdrawal

Since alcohol is a depressant (slowing down body functions), the withdrawal symptoms are stimulating (speeding things up). Withdrawal from all psychoactive substances is unpleasant and sometimes painful, but withdrawal is not typically life threatening. Alcohol is an exception to that.

Alcohol withdrawal can have serious consequences, including death. Roughly 10% of people undergoing detox treatment experience severe alcohol-withdrawal symptoms. These severe reactions can start suddenly and often have no warning signs.

The severity of alcohol withdrawal depends on many factors such as age, drinking patterns, and biological sex. Some people are more likely to experience severe alcohol withdrawal, such as:

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

Timeline And Symptoms Of Alcohol Withdrawal

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be easily confused for other issues like allergies, cold/flu, anxiety, and insomnia. Depending on the person’s drinking pattern, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can start as soon as a few hours after the last drink to several days after drinking is stopped. Periods of alcohol withdrawal can last 4 to 5 days after symptoms start.

Recognizing the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is critical for maintaining safety. Symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hand tremors
  • Insomnia or disrupted sleep
  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Hallucinations
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Seizures

Alcohol Detox Timeline

6-12 Hours

  • Cravings
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea

12-24 Hours

  • Moderate withdrawal symptoms
  • Hallucinations and intense fear

24-48 Hours

  • High risk for seizures

48-72 Hours

  • Fever
  • Delirium
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Seizures
  • Confusion

72-96 Hours

  • Highest risk for delirium tremens

Paid Advertising. We receive advertising fees from purchases through BetterHelp links.

Online Counseling for Alcohol Addiction

Get professional help from an online addiction and mental health counselor from BetterHelp.

Get Matched
Begin Therapy
  • Personalized Matching Process
  • Easy Online Scheduling
  • 30,000+ Licensed Therapists


How To Detox From Alcohol

The likelihood of experiencing significant or life-threatening alcohol withdrawal depends on several factors.

First, 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 near daily 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.

“Cold Turkey” At Home

Movies and television shows often show someone giving up alcohol “cold turkey,” going from heavy drinking to abstinence in a single day. This method can be extremely dangerous, particularly for people who have been drinking daily or near daily for prolonged periods.

Taper At Home

Depending on your drinking pattern, it can be risky to work towards alcohol abstinence without medical monitoring. However, if you are unable to get professional oversight, you can minimize the risk of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms in several ways.

Based on your typical drinking pattern, it is best to gradually reduce your drinking over days or weeks until you reach zero drinks. Cutting back standard drinks by 10% per day can reduce the likelihood of withdrawal symptoms. This method can be difficult for some people since there is a tendency to relapse when trying to cut back alcohol use without being fully abstinent.

Medically Supervised Outpatient Detox

There is an often-underused option of medically supervised outpatient detox where someone is prescribed medications for alcohol withdrawal to take at home. It can be difficult to find physicians comfortable with outpatient detox since there is less medical oversight and higher risk of complications due to the misuse of the withdrawal medications.

Medically Supervised Inpatient Detox

Traditional detox programs are medically supervised inpatient or residential programs where the person stays overnight and is monitored by medical staff. Many medically supervised detox programs are inpatient units that are part of hospitals or medical centers.

Some residential treatment programs have a detox option on-site that makes it easier to transition to the residential program once the withdrawal symptoms subside enough for the person to actively participate in addiction treatment. Addiction treatment programs that do not offer detox may require someone to complete detox prior to being admitted to the treatment program.

Goals Of Alcohol Detox Programs

One thing to remember is that detox is not an addiction treatment, although it may be the first step toward recovery for many people. Detox is a medical intervention that treats the physical and emotional symptoms of withdrawal, but it does not often prioritize recovery skills.

Alcohol detox programs aim to:

Evaluate And Monitor The Patient

Alcohol detox programs evaluate and monitor withdrawal symptoms, physical health, and mental health. Outpatient detox programs will recommend that people monitor their own vital signs throughout the withdrawal period and advise them to seek emergency medical care if they develop dangerous symptoms. Residential and inpatient detox programs will monitor vital signs regularly and may also conduct other medical tests to evaluate liver functioning and other potential long-term health complications from alcohol addiction.

Provide Medication and Nutritional Support

Detox programs provide medication and nutritional support to reduce withdrawal symptoms and stabilize physical and emotional health. Medications for alcohol withdrawal typically include long-acting sedatives, particularly benzodiazepines like Librium. Other medications will be considered for other physical and mental health conditions. Since heavy alcohol use disrupts metabolism, hydration, and absorption of vital vitamins and minerals, detox programs help restore this balance. Sufficient hydration, nutrition, and Thiamine (vitamin B1) are essential during alcohol withdrawal.

Build Motivation

A big goal of alcohol detox programs is to build motivation for addiction recovery, discuss treatment options, and make appropriate referrals. Detox programs usually have a social worker, addiction counselor, or case manager that educates detox patients about the available options and connects them with appointments or arranges a direct transfer once the person has been stabilized.

Find Alcohol Detox Programs

You can locate alcohol detox programs in your area in several ways. If using health insurance, you can contact your insurance provider for a list of approved in-network programs. You can also use the rehab directory to easily locate a treatment center close to you.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism and are looking for treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.