Alcohol detox

This Page was last reviewed and changed on December 3rd, 2021

Verified by Dr. Mateen Durrani
MBBS; DPM(lre); MSc(Lon); BSPsych(Lon)

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Content Overview

Alcohol detox clears your system of addictive substances so that you can focus on recovery with a clear mind. Although not an easy process, you should be proud for deciding to take this positive first step.

Alcohol detox is best done with the guidance of a medical professional, because it can be a tough process for those with severe withdrawal symptoms. In this page, we will explain everything you need to know about alcohol detox, how to do it safely and which symptoms people commonly experience.

How to get alcohol out of your system

Essentially, the only way to rid your system of alcohol is to stop drinking and give your body the time it needs to recover. While this may seem straightforward, unassisted detox can be unsafe and the addictive properties in alcohol make it very difficult for those with an alcohol dependency to stop.

Different people react differently to alcohol detox, but almost everyone will experience some degree of withdrawal symptoms. This is why it is always better to detox under the guidance and supervision of a doctor or another medical professional. They will be able to assess you to determine your overall health condition, the extent of your alcohol-use disorder and whether you are likely to experience severe withdrawal.

Once these assessments are complete, you will be guided through every step of the detox phase and will receive any medication you might need to make the process more comfortable.

How long does alcohol detox take?

The length of the detox phase varies from person to person depending on factors such as health, your levels of alcohol consumption and how long you have been dependent on alcohol. Generally speaking, withdrawal symptoms worsen during the first couple of days and then reach their peak around the third or fourth day of detox.

As long as you don’t go on to develop any serious complications, all withdrawal symptoms should subside around the seven-to-ten-day point. After this, your doctor may decide to prescribe you medication to help you with any ongoing cravings, which can arise even after you have fully detoxed.

Cold-turkey alcohol withdrawal

When you go “cold turkey” it means that you give up alcohol without any assistance from medical or addiction professionals and without the use of any medication. Making the decision to quit drinking is a brave step and you may believe that your willpower alone will help get you through the detox process. Unfortunately, you cannot will away alcohol withdrawal.

Cold-turkey detox at home can be potentially dangerous, as there will be nobody qualified to care for you if you develop severe health complications. These may include fevers, delusions, hallucinations and even seizures, and without the proper medical treatment, they can be potentially lethal.

Alcohol detox symptoms

While these are the most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which usually only affect people with underlying health conditions or an extreme drinking history, the majority of people who undergo alcohol detox will experience some degree of discomfort or unpleasantness.

The most common side effects of alcohol detox include an upset stomach, headaches, tremors, high temperature and heart rate, and difficulty sleeping. You may also experience digestive issues or find that you have no appetite at all. As long as these symptoms don’t develop into more serious problems, they should subside after seven to ten days.

Health complications

Alcohol withdrawal results from a chemical imbalance. The chemicals that your brain produces to balance out the alcohol in your system are suddenly no longer needed, but it takes the brain a few days to realise this. The excess chemicals can cause nausea, confusion, tremors and fevers, and if these start to become severe, you need to seek medical attention immediately.
If you do not address these symptoms, they can evolve into more serious problems like hallucinations, dangerously high blood pressure and temperature, severe tremors and seizures, and these can be potentially life threatening.

Detox medication

If your doctor or another addiction healthcare professional believes you are at risk of developing severe symptoms during the withdrawal phase, or your condition begins to worsen after a few days, there are various medications that they may decide to administer. Seizures can be particularly dangerous, and so medication, mainly a benzodiazepine or another antiepileptic medicine, is given to reduce the risk.

To calm your central nervous system and soothe your discomfort and agitation, you may also be given certain neuroleptic medications. If you have any mineral or nutrient deficiencies, which many people with alcohol-use disorders have, you may also be given nutritional supplements to resolve the imbalances.

NHS support

The NHS offers various alcohol treatment and support services, and the best thing to do is speak to your GP about the options available to you and any health information they can give. Unfortunately, government cuts have strained many addiction services to their full capacity and so it can be difficult to get the help you need. Waiting lists are growing increasingly longer and the only treatment offered now is outpatient treatment. This can make it difficult to receive medically assisted detox at the time you need it, and will also leave you exposed to all the alcohol triggers in your home environment.

Withdrawal symptoms

Alcohol is a depressant and this means when you drink on a regular basis, your body attempts to balance out the depressant effects by producing chemicals that act as stimulants. The more your drink, the more of these chemicals are produced, until the point when you start to produce them as standard.

When you suddenly stop drinking, your brain takes a few days to catch up, so you end up with an overload of chemical stimulants. It is these that cause withdrawal, and the only way to overcome them is to either drink alcohol again to balance them out, or to see out the detox process.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is the name given to all of the symptoms explained above, which occur when someone with a severe alcohol dependency gives up drinking. The severity of your AWS will depend on the extent of your dependency and the treatment and medication you receive.

During medically assisted detox, the healthcare professionals need to keep a careful eye on all the symptoms of AWS to ensure that your heart rate, temperature and blood pressure are all kept steady. If they begin to fluctuate, then medication or other treatment will be offered to minimise discomfort.

Effects of alcohol withdrawal

AWS symptoms vary from person to person and can range from fairly mild discomfort to potentially life-threatening health problems. It can be difficult to predict how your body will react to alcohol detox, which is why medical assistance is always so important.

You will usually start to experience withdrawal symptoms after six to twelve hours from when you stopped drinking. They may begin as mild symptoms, such as nausea, sweating and general malaise, but all being well will not progress into anything more serious. It’s possible to experience restlessness and an increased blood pressure and heart rate, and become increasingly irritable.

Even if your withdrawal symptoms are not severe, they are likely to be unpleasant. Completing alcohol detox at a rehab clinic means experienced addiction experts will ensure that you are as comfortable and safe as possible.

What happens in the days after you stop drinking?

When you begin your alcohol detox, the first two to three days are usually when you will experience the peak of your AWS symptoms. First, you will experience chemical imbalance until the brain realises it no longer needs to keep producing compensatory chemicals to balance out non-existent alcohol.

You may find that you are constantly dehydrated during the first three days because alcohol is a diuretic. Make sure you drink a lot of water as this can help to make the detox process easier. You may also experience the same kind of discomfort that comes with a hangover, such as headaches, nausea and restlessness.

What happens after three days of no alcohol?

For most people, the three-day mark signals the start of better things to come. After three days, your hydration and blood sugar levels will have returned to normal and you should start to feel stronger and healthy again. The hangover-like symptoms should have all abated, and you may find yourself feeling more energised. At this point, most acute alcohol cravings should have subsided because there will no longer be a chemical imbalance.

What happens when you give up alcohol for a month?

Our bodies have incredible powers of recovery and after a month you should notice positive changes. The liver is the organ most affected by alcohol abuse, but after only one month, it will have lost around 20% of the fatty deposits caused by drinking. You should see significant improvements in your energy, skin and cognitive clarity, and you will most likely be getting better sleep. While results vary from person to person, at the one-month point, most see significant health improvements.

How long does alcohol stay in your brain?

Our brains take some serious damage from alcohol abuse, and it takes some time before that damage can be repaired. After about two weeks of undergoing alcohol detox, your brain will have replaced a large amount of the volume it lost due to alcohol.

If you have been a heavy drinker for a long time, you may find that certain symptoms of alcohol addiction, such as memory loss and reduced attention span and reaction times, still remain, at least in the short term. If you stay dedicated to sobriety and receive the right addiction treatment, however, you can start to make real progress.
Different parts of your brain will take longer than others to respond to detox, but your cerebellum will be the first to heal, so you should see improvements in your balance and motor skills within a couple of weeks. With sustained sobriety, you can see major benefits in the state of your mental health, self-confidence and cognitive sharpness.

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What causes delirium tremens?

Delirium tremens (DTs) is the name given to the most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms that can potentially result from alcohol detox. They are caused by a sudden chemical imbalance, which means that our brains and central nervous systems are overstimulated by the chemicals that are produced to compensate for the alcohol in our systems. Alcohol withdrawal can also result in spikes in a certain amino acid called glutamate, which can cause severe symptoms like high blood pressure and seizures.

If you develop delirium tremens, these severe symptoms can continue for as long as a week and can cause detrimental health issues such as strokes, heart attacks and even death.

Symptoms of delirium tremens

Experienced addiction healthcare specialists will be able to recognise the oncoming symptoms of delirium tremens very early on. They often start out mild with increased agitation and confusion, and physical signs like excess sweating or fever.
As these are common withdrawal symptoms for people who don’t develop delirium tremens, they are not always symbolic of the onset of them. The medical staff will therefore be on the lookout for the more severe symptoms, which can include audio, visual and tactile hallucinations, vivid nightmares or fever dreams, increased blood pressure and heart rate, and severe tremors.

Treatment options

There are many different treatment options available for alcohol addiction. Some people decide to just give up drinking on their own, and while this can be successful if your drinking problem is not too serious, for those with a severe alcohol-use disorder, the best option is to enter an alcohol addiction treatment centre.

This is because while detox will rid your system of alcohol, it won’t help to address the underlying causes of your addiction.

These can be many and varied, but through a specialist treatment centre, you will receive a treatment plan incorporating different therapies which will help you to overcome your addiction and will teach you new and healthier coping mechanisms.

A rehab clinic will also provide fantastic aftercare support to help you resist the urge to drink if you experience long-term alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Recovery from alcohol addiction is a process, and that process will be far more successful with professional treatment, care and support.

Is it safe to detox from alcohol at home?

For anyone with a serious addiction, it is never advisable to attempt a home detox because the potential consequences can be so dangerous. However, if you are determined to detox at home, you should speak to your GP or an alcohol treatment professional about how to do it safely. The alcohol detox process can be tough so it is always best to have a family member or loved one with you so that they can help you and keep an eye on your well-being. Just make sure that you both do your research on when withdrawal symptoms become a cause for concern.

Common alcohol detox and withdrawal symptoms

If you decide to undergo alcohol detox, it is very likely that you will experience some level of alcohol detox symptoms. These may be mild or severe depending on the extent of your alcohol dependency, but the important thing is that you seek medical guidance before you begin your detox. This will ensure you get all the help you need to complete the detox phase of your recovery process as safely as possible.

Post-Acute-Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that immediately follow detox are known as acute-withdrawal symptoms, but you may also experience longer-term issues. This is known as Post-Acute-Withdrawal Syndrome or PAWS, and it can be a major challenge to overcome on the road to long-term recovery.

PAWS affects different people in different ways and to varying extents based on factors such as previous dependency levels, overall health and life situation. It may manifest as moodiness, emotional imbalance, loss of libido, a lack of energy and even chronic pain or discomfort.

The best way to deal with PAWS is through the aftercare services provided by the recovery clinic you attended. This aftercare is another reason why seeking professional help is so important when it comes to making a long-term recovery from alcohol addiction.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can you prevent alcohol withdrawal?

No, your body will go through alcohol withdrawal if you are dependent on alcohol and stop drinking.

Can you die from alcohol withdrawal?

Yes, it is possible to die during alcohol withdrawal. Death is extremely rare, though.

What should you eat during alcohol detox?

Eat healthy foods like fruits and vegetable that give your body the nutrients it needs to get through this taxing process.

What can you expect during detox?

During detox you can expect to feel at least somewhat uncomfortable. Your symptoms will vary depending on the severity of your condition.

How does it take to detox from alcohol?

The average time for detox is between 7 and 10 days.

How long does a person stay off alcohol after a detox?

A combination of aftercare services, group support, and the support of friends and family is what makes it possible to stay off alcohol after detox.

Why should I enter an alcohol detox programme?

Professionally administered detox gives you the best chances of recovery by offering you a medically supervised procedure based on the latest treatment models.

What is a binge drinker vs an alcoholic?

A binge drinker is someone who drinks excessively at specific times but is not dependent on alcohol. An alcoholic is a person whose body and mind are dependent.

Is there a distinction between moderation and abstinence?

Experts recommend moderation to people who misuse alcohol but who are not dependent on it. Moderation is not an option for alcoholics. The only real ‘cure’ for alcoholism is abstinence.

Why is it necessary to detox properly from alcohol?

A person dependent on alcohol is suffering from a condition in which both the body and mind rely on alcohol. Detoxification is necessary in order to restore the body’s proper functioning.

Are withdrawal symptoms different for different people?

People respond differently to the withdrawal process. Some exhibit all the classic signs of withdrawal while others exhibit only a few of them. Symptom severity also varies from one person to the next.

How important is medically supervised detox?

It is very important. Due to the potentially serious consequences of alcohol withdrawal, we always recommend medically supervised detox.

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