How to Detox Safely From Alcohol
Alcohol use disorder (AUD), otherwise known as alcoholism, is the inability to stop or control alcohol use despite severe social, occupational, or health consequences.1 As of 2019 in the United States, about 14 million adults older than 18 years of age reported having an alcohol use disorder (AUD).1
For those who’ve developed a physical dependence on alcohol, suddenly stopping or significantly reducing one’s use can lead to alcohol withdrawal, which can cause individuals to experience uncomfortable and sometimes life-threatening complications.2 Therefore, before undergoing detox for alcohol abuse, quick with your care provider and ask whether your treatment plan ensures that you will be able to withdraw from alcohol use safely.
Alcohol use disorders can be mild, moderate, or severe, and long-term, chronic alcohol use may result in long-lasting changes to various organ systems in your body including the brain, heart, and liver.1 However, regardless of severity, alcoholism can be successfully treated.
Learn more about alcohol withdrawal, its symptoms, how to safely detox and whether treatment may be an appropriate next step.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Acute alcohol withdrawal is a constellation of symptoms that occurs when a person with alcohol dependence suddenly stops drinking alcohol.2
Some of the more common symptoms that a person may experience when they go into alcohol withdrawal include:2
- Anxiety, nervousness, and depression.
- Mood swings, and irritability.
- Fatigue and mental fog.
- Clammy skin and sweating.
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Rapid heart rate.
Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include seizures and delirium tremens, which can involve agitation, hyperthermia, hallucinations, and seizures.2
Why Does it Occur?
Alcohol functions as a depressant in the brain, as it influences the inhibitory neurotransmitter known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).3 Alcohol can change the functioning of both GABA receptors as well as some receptors for glutamate, the body’s excitatory neurotransmitter. This initially leads to a slowdown in many of the networks that help the brain function.3 The brain reacts by decreasing the amount of GABA being released and boosts glutamate signaling to maintain homeostasis or a state of balance.3 This adaptation functions as long as the person continues to drink alcohol; this is known as tolerance.3
Then, if the person suddenly stops or significantly reduces the amount of alcohol consumed, the body experiences an imbalance, now with relatively greater weight on excitatory signals throughout key parts of the brain. This leads to the withdrawal symptoms people generally experience in alcohol withdrawal, including tremors, sweating, fast heart rate, and more serious complications like delirium and even seizures.2,3
Causes of Alcohol Withdrawal
When a person with alcohol dependence suddenly stops drinking, they begin to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms within 1 to 3 days.3
The more a person drinks, the greater the risk of experiencing alcohol withdrawal. Drinking to excess regularly, including binge drinking and heavy alcohol use, not only puts a person at risk of experiencing alcohol withdrawal, but also at risk of developing alcohol use disorder.1
Binge drinking is defined as 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more drinks for women within about 2 hours.4 It is important to remember that, according to the CDC, binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly form of excessive alcohol use in the United States.4
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
A person with alcohol dependence will experience symptoms of alcohol withdrawal within 6-24 hours of suddenly stopping or significantly reducing consumption.2 The symptoms that a person experiences, the time when they experience them, and the severity of the symptoms are all highly variable and can be difficult to predict.
Mild to moderate symptoms that may be experienced include:2
- Agitation, irritability, and anxiety.
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping.
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Uncontrolled tremors in the hands and body.
- Difficulty walking or problems with balance.
- Rapid heart rate and breathing.
Moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms include those in the list above as well as:2,3,6
- Altered mental state.
- Withdrawal seizures.
- Delirium tremens, an experience that includes global confusion, hallucinations and profound agitation It may also be accompanied with a rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and hyperthermia.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and the risk of experiencing delirium tremens can last up to 5-7 days. Severe withdrawal symptoms can be extremely dangerous and carry with them a greater risk of mortality if left untreated.6 Some symptoms may persist beyond this timeline and can continue for months, including anxiety, irritability, mood instability, insomnia, and cravings.7
How to Detox Safely from Alcohol
Due to the dangers of alcohol withdrawal, if you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol use disorder, it is imperative to plan to detox safely. With detoxification, or “detox,” the main goal is to manage the acute intoxication and withdrawal phase and prevent potentially life-threatening complications that may occur if alcohol withdrawal is left untreated.8
Medical detox is a safe way to stop alcohol use for those who want to become abstinent, and for anyone requiring mandatory abstinence due to a hospitalization or from legal repercussions.8 It is designed to treat a person’s withdrawal symptoms while facilitating the transition into treatment and recovery.8 Individuals can undergo detox in a variety of settings such as:
- Standard outpatient: In an outpatient setting, detoxification can take place out of a doctor’s office or clinic, or at home via home health agency. Monitoring occurs at predetermined intervals. It’s helpful if the person suffering from alcoholism has a positive, abstinence-focused living environment and helpful social support.8
- Medically monitored residential/inpatient detoxification: This type of care provides 24-hour supervision and support for those experiencing alcohol withdrawal. The focus here is ensuring that the person is medically stable. Physicians and support staff are readily accessible 24 hours a day. Peer and social support may also be included.
- Medically managed inpatient detox: This is the most intensive level of care and usually takes place in acute care general hospitals, addiction and treatment units in hospitals, and psychiatric hospitals.8 In this setting, there is continued ongoing medical care for people suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms with clinical protocols in place to appropriately and safely manage alcohol withdrawal syndromes. 8 Undergoing detox and alcohol withdrawal on your own can be dangerous. Having the help of well-trained staff to help you can avoid unpleasant and sometimes severe complications.2,3,6 The effects of alcohol withdrawal can become serious enough to lead to serious harm and even death if not medically treated.6
Further Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Detox is often the first phase of alcohol addiction treatment and is rarely sufficient to sustain long-term abstinence or recovery from alcohol use disorder.9 Effective treatment for alcoholism takes a multifaceted approach that involves behavioral treatment, mutual support groups, and possibly medications.1
AUD is a complex but treatable disease that affects both brain function and behavior.9 Treatment helps to undo some of the changes in brain function that have affected your ability to control your behavior, and new behaviors must be learned after stopping use.9
No single treatment or treatment course will work for everyone. When a person decides it is time to start rehabilitation and recovery, a treatment plan that consider the multiple needs of the individual is developed, and other factors are considered, not just a person’s alcohol use.9
Participating in behavioral therapy during treatment has proven to be beneficial as it can help build skills to reduce alcohol use and craving, as well as help to prevent relapse.9 Medications may also be administered during and/or after treatment. Three FDA-approved medications to treat alcohol dependence include: acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone.9
Additionally, participating in group therapy and 12-step groups can help replace alcohol-using activities with constructive and rewarding activities, improve problem-solving skills, and facilitate better interpersonal relationships.9 Participating in these groups long-term during and after treatment can help maintain sobriety.
Get Treatment for Alcoholism
If you’re considering quitting alcohol and aren’t sure where to begin, our admissions navigators can help. Alcohol.org is a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers (AAC), a nationwide provider of addiction treatment centers. We offer detox services at most of our facilities and our network of industry experts will oversee your entire recovery journey.
Fill out the form below to instantly verify your insurance and see if your provider covers treatment with AAC. We believe that treatment should be available to every person in need and not only accept many insurance plans but can also work with you to discuss payment options so that finances aren’t a barrier to recovery.
Call our hotline at 866-871-7659 to speak with an admissions navigator about your treatment options today. There’s no obligation to make any decisions up front; they are available to answer any questions you may have about rehab, our approach to treatment and which facility may be best for your needs.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Understanding alcohol use disorder.
. MedlinePlus. (2021). Alcohol withdrawal.
. Jesse, S., Bråthen, G., Ferrara, M., Keindl, M., Ben-Menachem, E., Tanasescu, R., Brodtkorb, E., Hillbom, M., Leone, M. A., & Ludolph, A. C. (2017). Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: mechanisms, manifestations, and management. Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, 135(1), 4–16.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Binge drinking.
. Banerjee N. (2014). Neurotransmitters in alcoholism: A review of neurobiological and genetic studies. Indian Journal of Human Genetics, 20(1), 20–31.
. Newman RK, Stobart Gallagher MA, Gomez AE. (2021) Alcohol Withdrawal. StatPearls Publishing.
. Caputo, F., Cibin, M., Loche, A, De Giorgio R, Zoli G. (2020). The recognition and management of protracted alcohol withdrawal may improve and modulate the pharmacological treatment of alcohol use disorder. Journal of Psychopharmacology. Nov;34(11):1171-1175.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Detoxification and substance abuse treatment.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of drug addiction treatment: a research-based guide.