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Alcohol Detox Guide: Symptoms, Timeline, and Effects

Woman with glass of wine on table

Alcohol is an intoxicant that can be legally purchased by anyone age 21 or over. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant—drinking can lead to a loss of coordination, poor judgment, slower thought process, and loosening of inhibitions.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), over 15 million adults in the United States had an alcohol abuse disorder in 2015, yet only 1.3 million of them received formal alcohol addiction treatment.1

Alcohol is the most commonly abused of any substance. The following are some reasons why:

  • Alcohol is easy to find and legal to purchase.
  • Drinking alcohol is socially acceptable in many settings.
  • Alcohol is considerably less expensive than most drugs.

Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to the development of tolerance, which means that you require increasing amounts of alcohol in order to feel the desired effects or intoxication. Tolerance continues to increase as alcohol abuse continues, which can have deadly consequences as excessive alcohol consumption can compound already significant physical toxicity and lead to overdose.

As tolerance builds, it is likely that physical dependence will develop as well. Once you are dependent on alcohol, unpleasant and potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms will emerge if you suddenly cut back on alcohol or quit drinking altogether. Professional detoxification services are available to help you through distressing withdrawal symptoms, ensuring comfort and safety throughout the process.

Struggling with Alcohol Addiction

Struggling with Alcohol Addiction
Although alcohol is safe in moderation, chronic and excessive consumption can lead to alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, a progressive condition that tends to worsen without treatment.

What Are the Short-term Effects of Alcohol Abuse?

Usually, moderate alcohol consumption is safe and is not likely to cause any detrimental side effects. It may actually reduce the risk of developing heart disease.7 Moderate drinking is defined as up to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.6 One drink is considered a 1.5-ounce shot of a distilled spirit or liquor, a 12-ounce serving of beer, an 8-ounce serving of malt liquor, or a 4-ounce glass of wine.6

Drinking alcohol in higher amounts than the recommended safe dose can lead to intoxication, which may have some pleasant or desirable effects but can also be problematic. Some short-term effects of alcohol abuse may include:2

  • Inappropriate aggressive or sexual behavior.
  • Mood instability.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Coordination problems.
  • Unsteady gait.
  • Nystagmus (uncontrollable eye movements).
  • Attention or memory issues.
  • Stupor.
  • Coma.

Intoxication can be amplified when alcohol is combined with other psychoactive substances, such as marijuana, cocaine, opioids, or benzodiazepines. Mixing alcohol with other drugs can be extremely dangerous and lead to overdose or other harmful consequences.

What Are the Long-term Effects of Drinking?

Long-term alcohol consumption can have detrimental consequences on a person’s mental and physical health. Chronic drinking causes disruptions in neural pathways and can cause drastic changes in behavior and mood, as well as impair cognitive functioning.Some potential long-term effects of alcohol abuse include:7

  • High blood pressure.
  • Stroke.
  • Irregular heart beat.
  • Cardiomyopathy (stretching and weakening of heart muscle).
  • Cirrhosis.
  • Liver cancer.
  • Alcoholic hepatits.
  • Fatty liver.
  • Pancreatitis.
  • Mouth and throat cancer.
  • Breast cancer.
  • Weakened immune system.

As previously mentioned, chronic alcohol consumption causes a person’s tolerance to increase, which means that they require more alcohol to achieve intoxication.2 This can be dangerous as tolerance continues to build, because high amounts of alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning, which is an emergency and requires immediate medical attention.

Long-term drinking can also lead to a dependence on alcohol, which means that withdrawal symptoms are likely to emerge if you try to cut back or quit drinking. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening and often require professional detox treatment.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

You can receive drug detox and/or alcohol addiction treatment in a safe and comfortable environment supervised by medical professionals.

The acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome manifests itself differently in different people depending on various factors, such as age, physiology, mental and physical health, the abuse of other drugs, the length of alcohol consumption, the frequency of alcohol consumption, and average amount consumed. After prolonged bouts of drinking, some people will experience at least a few of the following alcohol withdrawal symptoms; in more significant cases of alcohol dependence, others may encounter most or all of them:2,4

  • Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or intense nightmares.
  • Severe nausea and/or vomiting.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Tremors.
  • Profound sweating.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Fever.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Agitation.
  • Seizures.
  • Confusion.
  • Disorientation.
  • Impaired memory and judgment.
  • Increased sensitivity to light, sound, and tactile sensations.
  • Auditory, visual, or tactile hallucinations.
  • Delusions.

If you or someone you love has experienced symptoms of this nature when attempting to quit or cut back on alcohol use, it is time to reach out for help. You can receive drug detox and/or alcohol addiction treatment in a safe and comfortable environment supervised by medical professionals.

Withdrawal Timeline

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) indicates that alcohol withdrawal symptoms tend to emerge within 4-12 hours of the last drink. As alcohol is metabolized and cleared from the body fairly rapidly, the onset of withdrawal symptoms is often abrupt, but symptoms then resolve relatively quickly. Symptoms tend to peak around the second day and subside by the fourth or fifth day.2

Because many issues factor into the withdrawal process, any general withdrawal timeline is going to be a mere estimate of what ultimately transpires. Factors that may exacerbate alcohol detox include the following:2

  • Age.
  • Having significant medical issues.
  • Past episode of significant and/or complicated withdrawal.
  • Family history of alcohol withdrawal.
  • Consumption of sedatives or anti-anxiety medications.

Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal

Man with alcohol withdrawal symptoms

As mentioned, the effects of withdrawing from alcohol are quite complex and sometimes present some serious health risks. Physical risks include cardiac complications related to blood pressure spikes, dehydration and electrolyte imbalance due to vomiting, accidents related to hallucinations or delusions, high fevers, and seizures. These symptoms are best monitored and managed with medical supervision.

There are some potential long-term effects related to alcohol withdrawal, referred to as protracted or post-acute withdrawal. These symptoms can persist for weeks, months, or years once acute withdrawal symptoms have been resolved.3 They can be particularly distressing and can interfere with the recovery process. Some examples of common protracted withdrawal symptoms associated with chronic alcohol abuse include:3

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Hostility.
  • Unstable moods.
  • Insomnia.
  • Sleep apnea.
  • Fatigue.
  • Problems with concentrating and thinking.
  • Decreased interest in sex.
  • Unexplainable pain.

Transitioning into a comprehensive alcohol abuse treatment program once you complete detox can help to mitigate some of these protracted withdrawal symptoms and can provide you with the foundation you need to begin on the road to sobriety.

What is Alcohol Detox?

You may be apprehensive or scared about entering a detox program, particularly if you aren’t acquainted with the detoxification process. Detox is a safe, medically supervised method designed to clear your system of alcohol and other substances.Trained medical and psychiatric staff members provide around-the-clock support and are available to intervene if the patient experiences medical complications related to withdrawal.8

The objective of an alcohol detox program is to help patients withdraw from alcohol comfortably and safely and prepare them to transition into an alcohol abuse recovery program. Detoxification typically has 3 key components, including:8

  • Evaluation: A mental health professional administers an intake evaluation, which assesses the severity of your addiction, as well as your mental and physical health condition. This information will be used to create an individualized detox treatment plan for you.
  • Stabilization: Staff members provide monitoring and support throughout the withdrawal process with the goal of identifying potential complications and intervening appropriately.
  • Helping the patient transition into treatment: Once you are medically stabilized, the staff members will create a plan for you to transition into a recovery program that can equip you with relapse prevention skills that will help you maintain sobriety in the long run.

Alcohol detox programs provide a structured environment for those detoxing from alcohol while addiction treatment programs provide an intensive and thorough approach to recovery by addressing the underlying issues driving substance abuse.

Detox Options

Withdrawing from alcohol can be uncomfortable, but programs are available to help you get though the process safely with minimal emotional or physical trauma. There are several levels of care, and it is sometimes hard to know which choice is the best for you. Here is a list of detox options:

  • Hospital setting: Many hospitals have detox units where medical professionals are trained to closely monitor your condition and keep you safe. Oftentimes people receive detoxification services at a hospital after experiencing a medical emergency, such as alcohol poisoning or severe, prolonged seizures.
  • Inpatient treatment: You live at the residential detox facility for the duration of detox, receiving 24-hour monitoring and care. Medications, such as benzodiazepines, may be utilized to increase safety by minimizing agitation and lowering the risk of seizure.
  • Outpatient detox: Some clinics and private physicians offer outpatient detox programs in which you live at home but attend the program or visit your doctor’s office on a daily schedule. As alcohol withdrawal can be quite severe, outpatient detox options are reserved for those who have been thoroughly evaluated by a physician or other substance abuse treating professional, and found to be at minimal risk of experiencing a complicated withdrawal.

Detoxification is only the first step in treating alcoholism. Many have failed to maintain sobriety because they tried to return to their old lives once they detoxed from alcohol. Relapse is a very real possibility unless one is armed with the tools to stay on the path of recovery. Alcohol and drug detox are step one; additional treatment helps provide these relapse prevention tools.

Sources

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2016). Alcohol facts and statistics.
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Edition). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2010). Substance Abuse Treatment Advisory: Protracted Withdrawal.
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2013). A treatment improvement protocol tip 45.
  5. National Center for Biotechnology Information US National Library of Medicine. (2006). Overview, essential concepts, and definitions in detoxification.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.(2016). Fact Sheets-Alcohol Use and Your Health.
  7. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Detoxification and substance abuse treatment.
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