Alcohol Detox: Not for the Faint of Heart

It can be hard enough to convince an alcohol abuser to give up the bottle, but when the alcohol withdrawal symptoms start to rear its ugly head, it can be almost impossible to keep an addict in his or her alcohol detox programme.

In today’s society, nary a day passes when one celebrity or another isn’t entering rehab for alcohol addiction – it is as if not needing to detox has become unfashionable. But what happens when stars check into rehab, take off their makeup, and get down and dirty with their detox like regular non-celebrity people?

Detox, short for detoxification, is the process of allowing the body and all its systems to purge itself of alcohol in order to revert to normal physiological functions. During alcohol detox, addicts are initially given medication to help prevent or kerb withdrawal symptoms but are quickly weaned off as symptoms subside.

What Are the Withdrawal Symptoms Associated with Detox?

Since alcohol affects virtually every cell in a person’s body, it can be a long and tedious process to withdraw from it for some.  Most severe addicts must be weaned off alcohol upon entering an alcohol detox programme because suddenly stopping drinking – as in going cold turkey – can be a dangerous undertaking that could even end up in death due to severe symptoms that include gastric bleeding and seizures.

Beginning within hours or sometimes days following the alcoholic’s last drink, withdrawal symptoms rarely appear one at a time. In fact, they often occur in pairs or combinations of multiple symptoms, making alcohol detox unbearable for the person detoxing. Withdrawal symptoms are the result of the lowering of alcohol levels in the bloodstream and can include:

  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sweating
  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • tremors
  • confusion
  • nightmares
  • insomnia
  • tired feelings
  • easily startled or shaky
  • high blood pressure
  • an increased heart rate.

If you thought as you read that many of the symptoms look like flu symptoms, you wouldn’t be too far off. As alcohol works its way out of the body’s cells, the alcoholic may feel like they have a massive case of the flu, with body aches and tremors that resemble the shivering that often accompanies a fever.

Delirium tremens (DT) is the most severe type of withdrawal syndrome, and it usually sets in around day three of detox and can last for two or three days. Signs and symptoms of DT include:

  • fever
  • extreme confusion
  • extreme agitation
  • seizures
  • auditory hallucinations – hearing sounds that are not there
  • tactile hallucinations – having a sensation of numbness, burning, or itching, that is not really happening
  • visual hallucinations – seeing things that are not there.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

Certain chemicals in alcohol cause the brain to release neurotransmitters called dopamine that signal pleasure to the person consuming the alcohol. Because of the amount of alcohol regularly consumed by alcoholics, a high tolerance is developed over time which requires the alcoholic to drink more alcohol to achieve the same feelings of pleasure.

When a person drinks excessively on a daily basis, their body’s physiology changes and they become literally dependent on alcohol. Eventually, the alcoholic’s nervous system, the network of nerves and cells that transmit impulses to body parts and vital organs, can no longer function without some degree of alcohol present in the bloodstream. A sudden absence of alcohol at this point can throw the body’s system into a shock, and that is what causes the withdrawal symptoms.

Are There Ways to Ease the Withdrawals of Alcohol Detox?

There are medications available to help alcoholics through the first few days of detox. On the first day that the alcoholic stops drinking, a physician will prescribe a high dose of medication, usually chlordiazepoxide. Over the next week, the dose of the medication is gradually reduced, and the alcoholic is weaned off it. This medication regimen can significantly reduce withdrawal symptoms.

Another effective method of reducing the perceived severity of withdrawals it to keep the detoxing alcoholic distracted. Allowing an addict to wallow in their discomfort or focus on their cravings makes both seem amplified in their view. Distraction redirects their attention and allows them a temporary relief of the condition causing their discomfort.

There are many forms of distraction, but the following prove particularly useful:

  • exercise
  • listening to music
  • going for a walk
  • watching television
  • reading
  • socialising
  • video games.

What Happens After Alcohol Detox?

Following detox, the real treatment can begin. There are several different options available that provide the structure and assistance needed to overcome alcohol addiction.

From 7-day to 28-day comprehensive treatment programmes that help to heal an addict’s body, mind, and spirit following detox, to 12-step aftercare programs, life skills courses, and ongoing counselling as needed, UKAT offers a broad range of treatments and programmes to assist alcoholics in overcoming their addiction.