It’s the first step for those ready to end problem drinking — cleansing the body of alcohol through detox. But what does detoxification really mean? Here’s a look at the process through five commonly asked questions:
Can’t I Just Go Cold Turkey Rather Than Going Through Alcohol Detox?
It’s admirable to want to go it alone — just empty the liquor cabinet and change your life. But if your alcohol use has progressed to the level of physical dependence, ending it takes more than willpower and good intentions; it takes medical supervision. That’s because alcohol use, especially when it’s prolonged and heavy, changes the body and brain, and stopping suddenly can be both painful and dangerous, even deadly.
Putting yourself under the care of medical professionals trained in detoxification means you have someone to monitor you physically and mentally as you go through withdrawal and to intervene when necessary. They’ll also be able to prescribe medication that will ensure you are as comfortable as possible.
Just as important, they’ll act as your support team, encouraging your progress and making it much more likely you’ll continue on to treatment — and long-term addiction recovery.
What Kinds of Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Are Possible?
What you will experience during detox depends, of course, on how severe your alcohol use is and also on your current mental and physical condition. Among the possible reactions are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased blood pressure
- Delirium tremens
- Cardiac arrest
It is a daunting list. But it’s important to keep in mind that the point of medical detox is to help you minimize these symptoms and to bypass the very real dangers that can come from suddenly stopping alcohol use.
How Long Does It Take to Detox From Alcohol?
There is no single number — it varies from person to person and with the severity of the drinking problem — but anywhere from a few days to 10 is average.
Within the first few hours of the detox process, cravings, nausea, mood swings and a rise in blood pressure and tremors are common. Within a couple of days, symptoms can sometimes grow to include seizures and hallucinations.
For those with milder alcohol use issues, detox can sometimes end at this point. For most, however, the process continues for several more days during which symptoms can increase and the patient continues to be carefully monitored. Medications can help to minimize symptoms and discomfort, reduce anxiety, and ease the transition to becoming alcohol-free.
What Should I Look for in an Alcohol Detox Center?
A good detox program will include:
- Well-trained and licensed medical personnel. Not only doctors and psychiatrists, but a nursing staff that provides round-the-clock care.
- A physical and psychiatric examination that includes an in-depth assessment of your situation and a personalized treatment plan.
- Medical options that ease suffering and minimize dangerous symptoms.
- Psychological and emotional support to help you begin exploring the “why” behind your alcohol use.
- Help in transitioning you to treatment after detox, ideally within the same network. Many residential addiction treatment facilities provide detox and residential rehab at the same locations.
What Comes After Detox?
Detox helps the body get back into equilibrium but it doesn’t “fix” addiction. What it does do is provide a strong foundation on which you can do the work of understanding and overcoming the issues underlying your alcohol use as well as learning how to deal with the cues that can trigger relapse. Most people do such work at a residential addiction treatment facility that can offer such supports as group and individual counseling, medication to help keep cravings under control, and emotional support.
From there, it’s back into the community, where many find continued encouragement for continuing their sober life from mutual support organizations, outpatient treatment, therapists, counselors and others. Withdrawal symptoms such as sleeplessness, anxiety and cravings may continue to some degree for months, but medication can help, and each day that passes means your brain and body are closer to healing. The key thing to remember is that alcohol recovery is a long-term process. Detox is simply the first step in your journey to a better life.