Due to its widespread use and its legality, alcohol is the most common culprit of substance abuse. Despite the common dangers, western media tends to celebrate and condone drinking in a way that has resulted in widespread alcohol use and abuse.
Most people know that drinking and driving, alcohol poisoning, and brain damage can be deadly consequences of alcohol abuse, even compared to drug abuse. However, few understand that quitting can be unsafe if you drink heavily. The alcohol withdrawal symptoms that often come when you stop drinking completely can have fatal results, which is why going through a medically supervised alcohol detox is the best way to live a life free from alcohol addiction.
What Is Alcohol Detox?
For those who decide to get treatment after struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD), one of the first steps toward recovery will involve completing an alcohol detox program. As we will cover throughout this guide, alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be extremely dangerous. Trying to detox at home alone could be fatal, so going through severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms under medical attention at an accredited facility is paramount to your safety.
At an alcohol detox center, medical professionals monitor and assess clients during the alcohol withdrawal process. This not only increases the safety of the individual going through detox but their comfort as well. Because quitting alcohol abuse is a mental and physical challenge, this typically includes psychiatric support and a referral to an inpatient treatment center for further care after detox.
What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol is a depressant that slows and inhibits the central nervous system, which negatively affects almost every other system in the body. When alcohol use becomes a drinking problem, your brain adjusts its internal chemistry to stay balanced while there is alcohol in your system. This is why you will eventually develop a tolerance for alcohol if you keep drinking, which means your body has adjusted to make alcohol necessary for normal functioning. At this point, the absence of alcohol will cause your body to become chemically unbalanced, leading to severe withdrawal symptoms.
While quitting long-term heavy alcohol use, many see it as a badge of honor to quit cold turkey. However, the life-threatening symptoms of alcohol withdrawal require medical supervision to do it safely.
The main symptoms that commonly occur during alcohol detox are:
- Panic attacks
- High blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Severe confusion
- Shakiness and hand tremors
Some of the more severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Catatonia (a condition characterized by abnormal movements and behavior)
These severe symptoms appear during acute alcohol withdrawal, including delirium tremens (DTS or alcohol withdrawal delirium). This is a severe form of the above withdrawal symptoms, including confusion, hallucinations, confusion, high blood pressure, shaking, seizures, and high fever. This results from the rapid changes to your central nervous system caused by the lack of alcohol to balance the body.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
Here is a breakdown of the timeline you can expect when you stop drinking after serious alcohol dependence.
First 24 Hours
Within about eight hours after you stop drinking, you will start to experience withdrawal symptoms in a mild form. They may start off mild but will increase in intensity as the first 24 hours without alcohol elapses.
Days 2 & 3
This is the point at which the alcohol withdrawal symptoms will be at their most severe and at their most deadly. Twenty-four hours after your last drink, discomfort is also anticipated to be at its highest, and your medical team will be prepared to ease these symptoms far better than if you were going through this at home. Delirium tremens is best handled by a healthcare professional.
Days 4, 5, & 6
These next few days will see a gradual decrease in symptoms. The alcohol detox process will become safer, more comfortable, and more manageable as time goes on. Cravings will likely still be an issue during this time as well. The medical team may be able to provide a prescription to mitigate these cravings and help you avoid alcohol.
By this time, most of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome should be mostly abated. The life-threatening symptoms should be behind you, and most of the physical discomfort should be gone. However, this will not take away the psychological symptoms such as irritation, cravings, and drinking as a form of self-medication from stress or anxiety.
What Should I Expect My Alcohol Detox to Be Like?
If you have decided to find freedom from alcohol addiction through substance abuse treatment, you have made the right choice. However, it will not be an easy journey. That’s why stopping drinking at a medical detox facility is important. Doing so will give you the resources you need to get the alcohol out of your system safely and as comfortably as possible while managing the dangerous withdrawal symptoms. It will also give you the mental health services you need to start your journey to recovery on the right footing.
After you enter a medical detox facility, your current physical and mental state, history, and goals will be taken into account as professionals create your recovery plan. During the weeklong process of alcohol detox, the goal will be to flush the alcohol out of your system and bring your brain chemicals back into balance. This can involve gradual weaning or even a prescription to mitigate the withdrawal symptoms. Medical professionals will ensure you eat and hydrate as you progress. They can prescribe solutions for fevers, headaches, nausea, and more, according to the ASAM Clinical Practice Guideline on Alcohol Withdrawal Management from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Importantly, your recovery journey doesn’t end once the medical care part of detox ends. Too many people simply detox before finding themselves drinking again as soon as it’s over and they’re free from the withdrawal symptoms. Clinical professionals will work with you to transition into a longer-term treatment program that will help address the root cause of your alcohol use disorder.
How Many Days Will It Take to Detox from Alcohol?
Alcohol detox takes about a week to bring your chemical balance back into order after prolonged drinking. To detox safely, you should make sure the alcohol is out of your system before moving on with clinical treatment or inpatient care.
The first day of stopping after heavy drinking will see the initial onset of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. If left untreated, the symptoms will likely require medical care.
Day 2 to Day 3
While detox’s most dangerous and uncomfortable part may be over, many still feel intense cravings for alcoholic drinks. If you are still experiencing withdrawal symptoms after the seventh day, your healthcare staff might change your alcohol detox plan.
Day 4 to Day 7
While the most dangerous and uncomfortable part of the detox may be done, many still feel intense cravings for alcoholic drinks. If you are still experiencing withdrawal symptoms after the seventh day, your healthcare staff might change your alcohol detox plan.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
If you or a loved one has questions about alcohol detox, here are some frequently asked questions to help you make informed decisions about treatment.
What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Drinking?
Because alcohol depresses the central nervous system, having a significant amount of it in your system for a long time will result in your brain and body attempting to compensate for it. Your brain produces natural stimulants and depressants to maintain a balance. When you introduce an outside depressant, the brain will reduce its production of natural depressants and increase its production of natural stimulants. Then, if the alcohol level suddenly drops, you’ll be left with high stimulant levels and extremely low depressant levels, leading to rapid fluctuations in the central nervous system.
How Bad Is Alcohol Withdrawal?
The severity of your alcohol withdrawal symptoms depends on various factors, including:
- Body type
- Family history
- Tolerance levels
- Body fat
- Pre-existing health problems or medical conditions
- History of drinking
The fever, vomiting, and seizures all constitute the severe symptoms of delirium tremens. At best, this has been described as a terrible flu. At worst, it can land you in the emergency room or even be fatal, particularly if you tend to drink heavily. Enduring this alone or at home without medical attention is highly discouraged, especially if you have pre-existing conditions that withdrawal could worsen.
Can Alcohol Withdrawal or Detox Kill You?
Yes, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. Detoxing and quitting alcohol suddenly without supervision by medical professionals in an accredited alcohol detox facility can be extremely dangerous. The fever, vomiting, and sweating that come with delirium tremens can quickly lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Also, withdrawal symptoms can negatively affect your heart health, resulting in tachycardia, increased heart rate, and high blood pressure.
Delirium tremens: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000766.htm
Pietro, M. D. (n.d.). Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: Symptoms, treatment, and detox time. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322373.php
Alcohol Withdrawal: Symptoms, Treatment and Alcohol Detox Duration. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/alcohol-withdrawal-symptoms-treatments#1
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: How to predict, prevent, diagnose and treat it. (2007, February). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17323538
The ASAM Clinical Practice Guideline on Alcohol Withdrawal Management: Pocket Guide (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/resource/ebp/asam-clinical-practice-guideline-alcohol-withdrawal-management-pocket-guide