Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the world, with nearly 80% of all Americans drinking. With more than 26% binge-drinking at least occasionally, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that over 15 million people in the USA are addicted to the substance. But, while many addicts never go on to seek treatment, what happens when you do?
Many people are aware of alcohol dependence, the process where the body becomes physically dependent on a substance and goes into withdrawal when that substance is taken away. Detox is that process of withdrawal, as the body readjusts to functioning without the substance. Detoxification is the first phase of recovery, and it extends from when you have your last drink to when your body is completely substance free. Understanding the process, what happens, and how your body responds to detoxification can help you to make better choices when quitting alcohol or when choosing treatment.
Detoxing from Alcohol: Timeline and Process
Most people experience alcohol withdrawal differently. Your symptoms and timeline will depend on your metabolism, how long and how much you’ve been drinking, and your body weight. Persons with a higher level of body fat usually take longer to detox than those with less body fat, because of metabolism differences and fat retention of alcohol. For most, withdrawal lasts between 5 and 7 days, but may last over 14.
However, most people experience similar symptoms and timelines, which can vary from the specified days, but usually follow the same general pattern.
Stage 1 (typically 8+ hours after your last drink) – Less heavy drinkers may not even notice cravings at first, but they will typically hit within a few hours of taking your last drink. If you’re an around the clock drinker, this will be immediately noticeable. For the much more common binge drinker who goes to work mostly sober and binge drinks after work, this process can take longer. Once you do notice, cravings will start to kick in and they will not go away, often for long after detox is over. You’ll also begin to notice nausea and abdominal pain, and if you try to sleep, may find that you cannot.
Stage 2 (24-72 Hours) – Cravings worsen and can become physical sensations of restlessness and skin crawling. During this period, many also begin to feel physically sick as the body adjusts to life without alcohol. Rapid changes in the neural network and limbic system often cause tremors, which can become seizures in extreme cases. Most will begin to feel like they have the flu, with physical sickness and pain in the body, nausea and vomiting, spikes in heart rate and blood pressure, and fever. Anxiety, depression, and irritability will also begin to kick in or worsen, causing mood swings and irritability around others. Expect to be feverish (increased body temperature), possibly confused, and for your heart rate to pound or race.
Stage 3 (72+ hours)– Symptoms will continue to get worse, with increasing pain and cold symptoms. Very severe cases of addiction can result in life-threatening symptoms, including rapid heart rate and dramatically increased blood pressure. Those with a weak heart or a history of heart problems in the family should seek medical help for this process. In some cases, users will experience hallucinations and seizures. Some are affected by Delirium tremens, a rapid onset of confusion, typically afflicting those in day 3 of withdrawal. Delirium lasts for 2-3 days and may be life threatening with 1-4% of patients dying in hospital. In some cases, symptoms can extend more than 10 days.
Day 5 Onward – Symptoms will begin to decrease, slowly tapering off to leave users with cravings but no confusion or mental symptoms. This typically takes anywhere from 5-14 days depending on the person.
If you’re in a treatment facility, most centers will wait to begin treatment after your detox symptoms have abated and you no longer have alcohol in your system. Once you’re completely sober, you will go through an evaluation which your treatment will be based on.
Common Symptoms of Alcohol Detox
Most people experience cold and flu-like symptoms, with muscle aches, headaches, fever, sweating, and a racing heart. In some cases, you may not be able to sleep or may be restless to the point of being unable to sit still. Cravings can feel like skin crawling. Long-term users, who have likely increased tolerance to alcohol, typically experience mood swings, anxiety, confusion, and agitation or anger. These emotions come and go, as the brain attempts to account for reduced dopamine and serotonin production. This same process of changing endorphins in the limbic and neural network cause seizures and trembling, which can worsen throughout the detox period. For most, mild to severe trembling is discomfiting rather than dangerous, but for very heavy drinkers, grand mal seizures are a risk.
In most cases, doctors will classify withdrawal symptoms into three degrees: mild, moderate, and severe. These are delineated by the type and severity of withdrawal symptoms, and usually align with the length and intensity of alcohol abuse. Severe withdrawal symptoms can be deadly and require medical treatment.
Is Detoxing from Alcohol Dangerous?
While many people attempt to detox alone, doing so can result in hospitalization and death. Chances of dangerous side effects are real, and the risk is there. Many medical professionals recommend detoxing under medical supervision if you have heavily abused alcohol for some time.
Medically assisted detox includes medical professionals to monitor your progress through detox, and if your condition is putting you at risk, give you medication to reduce symptoms to get you safely through the stage. In most cases this will include tranquilizing or sedative medications, intravenous fluid support to prevent electrolyte crashes and dehydration, and ongoing monitoring of your vital signs to ensure that you aren’t at risk.
If you choose to detox on your own, make sure that you have someone to call or someone to monitor your health. Sleep on your side in case of vomiting in your sleep. And, have someone check up on you periodically if you live alone.
Is Detox Enough?
Most of us have heard the ubiquitous “I can quit anytime I want”, but that’s rarely true. Many people with substance use disorder often go through stages of quitting and relapsing, because while they can go through detox, they cannot cure the multifaceted problems behind addiction. Treatment centers approach addiction from causative factors, like stress, mental disorders, environment, and learned behavior, offering therapy and counseling to teach new skills and coping methods. Therefore, detox often isn’t enough to prevent relapse, simply because it only tackles one aspect of addiction, the physical presence of alcohol.
Getting help ensures that you or your loved have the tools and opportunity to heal underlying issues like stress, emotional distress, and cooccurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. It also ensures that you are able to detox safely in a medical environment, so that complications can be met and reduced before they become life threatening. Once clean, a treatment facility will give you the tools to learn how to manage stress and cravings, rebuild relationships, and live a happy life without alcohol. To learn more about it you may contact Lighthouse Treatment Center today for more information. We are here to help and happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors.