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The Complete Guide To Alcohol Withdrawal & Detox

Medically Reviewed By: Benjamin Caleb Williams RN, BA, CEN

Written By: Phillippe Greenough

Article Updated: 09/25/2020

Not only is alcohol withdrawal potentially fatal, but the severity of withdrawal symptoms can lead to a wide range of health issues including brain damage and death. Due to these dangers, entering an alcohol detox is critical if someone stands a chance of safely and successfully making it through withdrawal. The dangers of trying to undergo self-detox from alcohol are great, not only in the short term but also for someone's long term chances of relapse. We've assembled a host of detailed guides to illustrate every facet of alcohol withdrawal, from specific dangers, symptoms, and effects, to various treatment strategies and medications.

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The Importance of Alcohol Detox

Undergoing alcohol detox in an unmonitored and untreated setting opens the door for some very serious and possibly fatal consequences. If left untreated, withdrawal from alcohol can result in dangerous conditions that may cause seizures, brain damage, cardiac arrest or stroke, and delirium which can lead to a variety of dangerous outcomes. Getting proper medical attention is extremely important.

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What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is a reaction produced in the mind and body to having adapted to the chronic presence of alcohol, known as alcohol dependence, and subsequently having alcohol removed. The changes the brain makes in the continued presence of alcohol allow it to function somewhat normally even though alcohol is exerting a strong depressant effect. Once these adaptations are made and alcohol is removed, the brain enters a hyper-excited state and is unable to slow itself down. This can present problems not only perceptually, but actual functional and physical problems which can lead to potentially fatal consequences.

What Happens To Your Body When You Stop Drinking?

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal is characterized by nervous system hyperactivity which can manifest internally as well as externally. Some of the most obvious outward symptoms include violent shaking, heavy sweating, hallucinations, and possibly seizures in very serious cases. The internal and psychological symptoms include anxiety, depression, confusion, and delirium and this can lead to brain damage. These symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable, scary, and dangerous if left unmonitored and untreated.

Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

The timeline for alcohol withdrawal can vary from person to person depending on many variables. That being said, alcohol withdrawal lasts between 3 to 7 days in the vast majority of cases but in rare cases may last longer. The symptoms will appear, increase and plateau, and finally, decline over this timeline. Depending on the amount of alcohol that someone drank regularly and the duration of their drinking, these symptoms may intensify more or less quickly, but the progression is fairly standard.

How Long Does It To Detox From Alcohol?

Alcohol Withdrawal Treatments

There are multiple treatment options that are commonly used together in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal. These include some very standard medications which are widely applicable and well-tolerated, a variety of medications that have varying efficacy between individuals, and certain dietary and supplemental practices which are very effective. While the medications work to manage the symptoms themselves, the dietary approach aims to restore some of the deficiencies which commonly result from alcoholism. Some of the most effective treatment strategies include:

Alcohol Withdrawal Medications

There are a series of medications that have varying success between people, particularly due to the slight differences in alcohol withdrawal symptoms between individuals. These are used to treat specific symptoms as they arise, thus some medications may work better for someone depending on their symptoms. These include medications that may be used for long periods to treat some of the neurological changes produced through chronic alcohol use.

Alcohol Withdrawal Medications

Benzodiazepines for Alcohol Withdrawal

Benzodiazepines, also known as benzos, are the preferred medication for treating the dangerous physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Since these medications work in a very similar way to alcohol, they are extremely effective at reducing the risks and discomfort of alcohol withdrawal. While these medications are commonly used for short periods in the acute stage of alcohol withdrawal, they may be used for longer periods in cases of severe withdrawal symptoms. They may also help reduce some of the psychological symptoms but are most often used for managing and reducing the acute physical symptoms.

Benzodiazepines For Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol Detox Diet

Aside from medications, specific diets may also help reduce the intensity of alcohol detox symptoms as well as their duration, albeit in a very minor way. Due to the particulars of alcohol metabolism, levels of certain vitamins (particularly B vitamins) are frequently depleted by the time someone enters an alcohol detox. Shortcomings in these vitamins can lead to neurological issues, particularly in the cerebellum, and can result in an increased risk of brain damage, cognitive issues, and possibly seizures. These shortcomings can also progress to Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome, an irreversible and devastating neurological condition, so correcting them early is very important

Alcohol Detox Diet

Methods of Detoxing From Alcohol

There are many ways to go through alcohol detox and some are more dangerous than others. While it is possible to self-detox, it is strongly discouraged as there are many risks and dangers associated with unmonitored and untreated alcohol detox. Some methods will not only prove to be safer but will also be much less uncomfortable, thus giving someone a better chance of successfully completing the alcohol detox process. Some fairly common alcohol detox methods include:

Quitting Cold Turkey

This is by far the most dangerous and risky method of alcohol detox. The severe neurological imbalances produced through alcohol addiction can result in dangerous health conditions that can kill. Even if someone was to survive this method, there is an increased risk of brain damage when quitting cold turkey from alcohol. To reiterate: under no circumstances is it ever recommended to quit alcohol cold turkey.

5 Reasons Why Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey Is A Bad Idea

Tapering

While not as dangerous as quitting cold turkey, performing a tapered detox from alcohol is extremely unpleasant. It also is frequently unsuccessful, as to avoid the worst of the symptoms, someone will have to drink for an extended time. Once someone starts to feel drunk, their resolve to quit usually weakens substantially. This can oftentimes turn from an attempt to taper into a full-blown bender. While it is safer in theory, in practice the success rate is low and there are still substantial health risks associated with this method.

Tapering Off Alcohol

Detox Centers

Entering an alcohol detox center is the preferred method of alcohol detox, not only for safety reasons but also since they provide a much higher success rate. These centers utilize the most effective medications and therapeutic techniques to help someone make it through alcohol detox in the most comfortable and safest way possible. Additionally, these centers offer referrals and connections to further treatment providers and can act as an introduction to recovery and a life after alcoholism.

Guide To Alcohol Detox Centers

Dangers of At Home Detox

There are substantial risks involved with the at-home alcohol detox approach. When left untreated, alcohol detox is extremely dangerous, both to the person experiencing withdrawal as well as those who are around them. Confusion, irritability, anxiety, and delirium can result in violent outbursts and unpredictable behavior. Additionally, the risk of brain damage and death is higher if someone undergoes alcohol detox without medication and medical monitoring.

Some of the greatest risks associated with at-home alcohol detox include:

The Dangers of At Home Alcohol Detox

DTs (Delirium Tremens)

Delirium tremens is a condition which is unique to alcohol detox and is an extremely unpleasant and dangerous experience. Symptoms include wild fluctuations in body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure combined with profound confusion, vivid hallucinations, and disorientation with respect to both time and place. To top things off, the risk of seizure is extremely heightened during DTs and these seizures may progress to a severe and brain-damaging state of seizure known as status epilepticus. Delirium tremens is regarded as a medical emergency by healthcare professionals, and someone experiencing DTs in an unmonitored setting is in grave danger.

Delirium Tremens: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures

Alcohol withdrawal seizures are one of the defining characteristics of alcohol withdrawal as very few other withdrawal syndromes exhibit seizures. While the chances for suffering a seizure are highest if someone experiences delirium tremens, it is not a prerequisite for experiencing one. The timeframe of the highest risk is the two days immediately after alcohol use is stopped, but these may be experienced at any point during alcohol withdrawal. Additionally, it is not only the direct risk of the seizure which poses a risk, but also the unexpected and sudden nature of alcohol withdrawal seizures. These may come on suddenly and with no warning, so if someone were in a sensitive situation, or even just standing near a staircase, this could lead to truly horrible consequences.

Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures

Long Term Alcohol Abuse is Dangerous, But Withdrawal Can Be Deadly

Aside from the immediate consequences of alcohol abuse, there are some specific issues that arise from long term alcoholism. These are health issues that can affect a variety of systems including the heart and circulatory system, nervous system, liver and stomach, sexual drive and performance, and a multitude of neurological issues involving memory, coordination, and perception. These risks can be minimized by abstaining from alcohol use and making certain lifestyle changes. It’s never too late to begin minimizing these risks. However, even withdrawal is risky.

Effects of Drinking vs. Dangers of Withdrawal

Finding Help

Alcoholism is a devastating and extremely difficult disease to overcome, and this can rarely be done without help. Thankfully, there are a variety of treatment options that are available to help someone make it through alcohol withdrawal and detox as safely and comfortably as possible. The first step for someone to obtain this help is to reach out their hand, pick up the phone, or get online and ask for it. Life without alcohol is possible, even though it may not seem like it sometimes. The journey towards that life will require the support of others, the guidance of professionals, and the willingness to put in the work to get there.

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