A Guide to alcohol detox & withdrawal
An addiction to alcohol has far reaching consequences that can impact your life. In the following article, we take a closer look at the process of recovery from an alcohol dependence. We explore detoxing from alcohol, which is the first step towards recovery, including the symptoms of an alcohol withdrawal. Discover the steps toward seeking help and the importance of therapy in overcoming an alcohol addiction.
What is an alcohol detox?
An alcohol detox is the process of quitting the consumption of alcohol where an alcohol dependence has developed. During this period, alcohol levels within the body are slowly diminished until a sober state is achieved. Once alcohol is no longer in the body or present in small amounts, chronic drinkers may experience withdrawal symptoms.
An alcohol withdrawal is characterized by symptoms of heightened anxiety, nausea, trembling, vomiting, and hallucinations (Mayo Clinic, 2018). Detoxing from an alcohol addiction requires professional assistance to support the process of withdrawal and recovery. To manage an alcohol withdrawal, the process of detoxing is best performed under the care and supervision of a medical practitioner.
The Benefits of an Alcohol Detox
Making the decision to stop drinking is a difficult one, especially for those who have become reliant on alcohol to deal with difficult and stressful situations. Quitting alcohol will improve your life in many ways, you can read more about the benefits of quitting alcohol here.
What is alcohol withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal occurs when the prolonged consumption of alcohol is abruptly stopped or decreased. The symptoms of an alcohol withdrawal can occur within a few hours to 4 days after a detox. Upon stopping alcohol consumption, you may feel agitation, excessive sweating, increased heart rate, depression, and seizures. As alcohol is a depressant, the body and the brain must adjust to the absence of alcohol over time.
This process creates feelings of discomfort, pain, and physiological changes that are described as alcohol withdrawal symptoms (Alcohol Rehab Guide, 2020). While withdrawal symptoms can decrease after a week or two, in chronic users, it could take much longer. Fortunately, with a professional support group, you can focus on your health and recovery.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
The withdrawal from alcohol can be a difficult process; however, each case is different, and the symptoms experienced will depend on several factors. These include:
- The severity of alcohol consumption
- The period of alcohol abuse
- The psychological state of the individual.
Chronic consumption of alcohol is defined as prolonged use and in large amounts to conceal feelings of anxiety or depression, to act as a coping mechanism, or in response to building a tolerance. The longer and the heavier the use of alcohol, the more severe the withdrawal.
A Timeline of Symptoms
Symptoms of an alcohol withdrawal can occur within 2 hours after its last consumption. Discomfort caused by a withdrawal can occur 24 hours after the alcohol has metabolized and is no longer in your body. Symptoms range from a rapid pulse and tremors to fevers, and life-threatening seizures. A symptom requiring medical attention that is associated with an alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens (Alcohol Rehab Guide, 2020). Delirium tremens causes shaking, confusion, and a drop in blood pressure.
It takes only 6 to 12 hours after the last drink to experience the symptoms of:
- High anxiety and depression
- Nausea and Vomiting
24 hours after last consumption of alcohol may result in following withdrawal symptoms:
- Body tremors
48 hours after the last alcohol consumption:
- Disrupted sleep
- Changes in blood pressure
- Delirium Tremens.
You can learn more details about the alcohol withdrawal timeline here.
The process of withdrawal is determined by the duration of an alcohol dependence. The longer and more frequent the consumption of alcohol, the more important it becomes to seek professional support. Pre-existing health conditions, the presence of a psychological condition (such as depression or anxiety), and multi-drug use, all affect intensity and length of time withdrawal symptoms are experienced.
Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)
Post-acute withdrawal syndrome is known as PAWS. It is a set of chronic withdrawal symptoms that may develop weeks to months after detoxing from alcohol (Addiction Center, 2020). PAWS is considered the second stage of an alcohol detox. This is owed to the readjustment of the absence of alcohol in the body and the brain. PAWS is unlike regular withdrawal symptoms and involves both psychological and emotional symptoms. The syndrome may cause poor concentration, depression, anxiety, fatigue, a lack of impulse control, brain fog, and sensitivity to stress.
The extent and the severity of PAWS depends on the frequency of alcohol intake and the length of alcohol dependence. PAWS can appear over a 48-month period; however, with the right support and therapy, these symptoms can be alleviated and help you cope through difficult times.
How to undergo an alcohol detox
An alcohol detox is the first step to achieving sobriety and starts with the cessation of alcohol consumption. Many are apprehensive to pursue a detox from alcohol owing to painful withdrawal symptoms. While there are different ways to perform an alcohol detox, it is important to first seek the support and advice of a medical professional.
Home Alcohol Detox
Seek the assistance of your local GP before you attempt to severely reduce or quit your drinking habits. If you are interested in an alcohol detox from home, always follow safety advice and have a family member or a friend you can trust supervise your detox. A gradual reduction in alcohol intake is a safer alternative to stopping abruptly. It is also easier to cope with. At home detox should start with a 5% to 10% reduction in alcohol consumption to prevent shock. Should you quit alcohol at home, seek medical assistance if you experience severe withdrawal symptoms such as hallucinations, dizziness, confusion, and seizures. A medical approach can support your efforts and a successful outcome.
The Pros and Cons of Detoxing from Alcohol at Home
- Comfort and familiarity
- Feeling safe
- Affordable compared to private inpatient services.
- The risk of painful withdrawal and relapse
- The risk of complications where other substances were used while drinking
- Worsening of pre-existing psychological conditions (absence of coping with alcohol)
Medically Assisted Alcohol Detox
A medically assisted alcohol detox is performed within a private rehabilitation setting. Experienced doctors and nurses are available to help you through the process. Alternatively, the NHS provides options for a medically assisted detox program from alcohol based on an individual assessment.
The Benefits of a Medically Assisted Alcohol Detox
A medically assisted detox offers the following benefits according to The Recovery Village (2020):
- A medical detox provides symptom management for severe withdrawal
- Individuals have 24/7 access to medical doctors and staff
- Vital signs are consistently monitored, and discomfort managed with approved medications
- Reduced risk of relapse.
A medically assisted alcohol detox in a private rehab facility can reduce symptoms, improve the recovery process, and prevent potential relapse with quick access to treatment, followed by therapy.
Preventing a Relapse
Alcohol is easily accessible and used as a coping mechanism to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. While psychological factors are largely involved in an alcohol dependence, environmental and hereditary factors cannot be ruled out. Frequent drinking to numb emotions or to achieve a state of intoxication can lead to tolerance. Large amounts of alcohol are consumed to achieve the same effect.
The longer alcohol is consumed and the greater the intake, the more severe the withdrawal symptoms and the risk of a relapse. To achieve sobriety, it is imperative that the source for an alcohol addiction is determined and the appropriate therapy sought.
Treating the underlying causes of alcohol dependency
A residential rehabilitation programme for an alcohol addiction offers 24-hour support and supervision by an experienced medical team. Treatment involves symptom management with prescribed medication (where deemed necessary) and support services from knowledgeable staff.
A residential rehab offers the benefits of a structured programme for alcohol dependence. Treatment is designed to explore individual triggers for alcohol use, past traumas, and the presence of psychological conditions.
The focus of therapy is to teach positive coping strategies and skills that are easily implemented in everyday life. The benefit of an inpatient or residential rehab is the adoption of a holistic approach. This means that it addresses every aspect of your mental and physical well-being including the reason for alcohol dependence. Long term benefits of therapy encourage psychological health, reduced risk of relapse, and the ability to rely on a support service should adverse effects such as post acute withdrawal syndrome occur.
Outpatient services & support groups
If you believe that you are struggling with alcohol and you are interested in affordable and accessible support services, the NHS and similar charities offer therapy programmes for those who are struggling with alcoholism and mental health problems.
Consulting with your medical doctor and discussing the possibility of an alcohol dependence is an important step towards seeking the therapy you need to live a healthy lifestyle. Stopping drinking can be a risky process and should always involve a medical doctor. Your physician can provide referrals in your area to relevant support programmes including the NHS.
If you do not wish to speak to your GP about a possible alcohol addiction, self referral services are widely available. By contacting the NHS, you can determine which services and facilities are available within your region and how to access them. According to the NHS, individuals with an alcohol dependence are entitled to medical treatment.
A support group is a valuable therapeutic option, offering the opportunity to share your thoughts and relate to others who are experiencing similar difficulties. Services including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) consist of a peer support group in which weekly meetings are held for those struggling with overcoming alcohol. It is led by an experienced counsellor who ensures all members feel comfortable and supported throughout the meeting.