The Need for a Medical Alcohol Detox

A medical alcohol detox is a process in which a patient who is withdrawing from heavy alcohol use is placed under clinical supervision to ensure that complications are managed appropriately. The effects of the abrupt cessation of alcohol use and subsequent withdrawal syndrome have the potential to be severe and even life-threating.

The alcohol detox process can take several days (5-7 on average) to complete. During this time, the patient’s body rids itself of alcohol and other toxins. Clinical staff monitor vital signs and administer medication to mitigate withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and tremors.

The duration of treatment is largely dependent upon several factors, including the average amount/length of time alcohol was consumed before detox.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the following criteria are necessary to diagnose alcohol withdrawal:

1. Cessation of or decrease in alcohol use that has been prolonged or heavy.

2. Two or more of the following symptoms have developed within hours to a few days after criterion:

  • Autonomic hyperactivity
  • Increased hand tremor
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Excessive, purposeless physical activity anxiety
  • Transient visual, tactile, auditory hallucinations or illusions*
  • Grand mal seizures*

*Symptoms characteristic of delirium tremens (DTs).

3. The symptoms listed in the aforementioned criteria cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, and other critical areas of functioning.

4. The symptoms are not attributable to a medical condition and are not better accounted for by another mental health condition.

The Entire Alcohol Detox Process: Three Phases

Assuming there are no comorbid conditions aside from alcohol use, withdrawal symptoms tend to follow a particular course consisting of the following phases:

Acute withdrawal

During the first hours after discontinued use, the patient will begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as those listed above. Seizures and tremors will occur within 48 hours and peak after about 24 hours.

Other symptoms may include the following:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Profuse sweating
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue, tremors
  • Depression
  • Foggy thinking/confusion
  • Mood swings
  • Heart palpitations

Early Abstinence

Early abstinence begins from 1-3 days after the last drink is consumed. A sudden lack of alcohol can result in the body entering a state of shock, and in cases where serious physical damage exists due to drinking, organs can begin to fail. Delerium Tremens, if the condition manifests, will start after about three days and last for 48-72 hours.

During the second phase, symptoms such as insomnia and anxiety persist, but actual physical symptoms begin to resolve. Anxiety can continue up to six weeks after the person has stopped consuming alcohol.

Protracted Abstinence

During the last phase, sometimes referred to as post-acute withdrawal syndrome, anxiety and dysphoria (dissatisfaction with life) may continue, and relapse is still a looming possibility due to continued cravings and low mood.

While many of the physical effects will likely subside, if left untreated, it is possible for some psychological effects to become permanent. This effect is also referred to as dry drunk syndrome – a persistent condition that may play a critical role in increasing the risk of relapse and future contentment with sobriety.

A person struggling with dry drunk syndrome may still maintain tense relationships with loved ones and suffer from unhealthy habits. Moreover, although an individual quits drinking or doing drugs, they have not dealt with the emotional baggage, learned new coping skills or altered flawed thinking that contributed to the addiction in the first place.

In a nutshell, people suffering from dry drunk syndrome feel overwhelmed, as though they are white-knuckling through life without their “crutch” otherwise known as their drug of choice.

Treatment for Alcohol Detox

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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), approximately 17.6 million Americans experience an alcohol use disorder (AUD.) And unfortunately, only a small percentage of those suffering (about 1 in 10) seek professional help.

A medical detox is only the first step in an addiction treatment program. After detox, patients are encouraged to participate in inpatient or intensive outpatient therapy and counseling.

Inpatients live at our center 24/7 for at least 30 days while engaging in their recovery, while outpatients live independently but visit the center several times per week for treatment.

Inpatients benefit from around-the-clock medical care and emotional support, which is essential for those with severe addictions or co-morbid mental illness. Outpatients have more freedom and flexibility to attend to personal responsibilities, such as work and family, while continuing treatment as they re-integrate with society.

After intensive treatment has been successfully completed, our aftercare planning services help patients find resources for ongoing recovery, such as psychiatric services, counselors, and 12-step meetings. Our center also organizes alumni activities to foster a community environment and remain present and supportive in the lives of former patients.

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