Americans incorporate alcohol into many parts of their everyday lives, including celebrations, social events, and relaxation. But for many people, alcohol abuse becomes a source of harm and distress. Some may drink too much on occasion but settle back into their daily lives, with minimal lasting repercussions. But an alcohol addiction is a chronic condition that negatively impacts day-to-day functioning and requires detox and addiction treatment to safely overcome.
According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 70% of people over the age of 18 reported drinking that year, and more than 15 million of them had an alcohol use disorder.1
Many people feel ashamed of their alcohol abuse, which may lead them to try to handle the problem themselves rather than seeking professional help. But alcohol withdrawal treatment at home is not only dangerous, it could be life-threatening.
During alcohol detox, your body adjusts to the absence of alcohol—and things don’t always go smoothly. Suddenly stopping drinking can result in severe withdrawal symptoms that include seizures and delirium tremens.2
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Alcohol addiction is a progressive condition that—like any other significant health issue—should be treated by qualified medical professionals. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms range from mild to extremely severe, and since there is no way of knowing where you will fall on that spectrum, it’s safest to go through detox under a doctor’s supervision.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually begin within 8 hours after your last drink, but can sometimes occur days later. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually begin within 8 hours after your last drink, but can sometimes occur days later. Symptoms typically peak around 24 to 72 hours into your detox and then subside, but some symptoms may persist for weeks.2
Signs and symptoms of alcohol detox include:3,4
Seizures are one of the more dangerous symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal, which can lead to lasting disability or death without proper medical care. Alcohol detox treatment centers use medications to prevent seizures and other medically dangerous symptoms of withdrawal, such as body temperature and pulse dysregulation.
Other factors that may complicate the detox process after a period of long-term alcohol abuse include low blood sugar, gastrointestinal bleeding, liver failure, pancreatitis, stretching and weakening of heart muscles (cardiomyopathy), and impaired brain function (encephalopathy).3
A severe symptom of alcohol withdrawal is known as delirium tremens (DTs), which is characterized by agitation, severe confusion, fever, seizures, and hallucinations.2 Studies estimate that 3–5% of patients who are hospitalized for alcohol withdrawal experience DTs.4 True delirium tremens (as opposed to “the shakes”) can lead to erratic and unpredictable behavior, which can be very difficult to manage at home, and can be fatal without medical management.4
If you experience DTs, you should seek emergency medical treatment where you can receive continuous monitoring of your cardiac rhythm, pulse, blood pressure, temperature, and respiratory rates. The best treatment for delirium tremens starts early on with alcohol withdrawal medications that halt its progression.3
Trying to detox from alcohol at home can be particularly dangerous for people with co-occurring medical conditions, such as pre-existing heart conditions or anxiety, since these issues can aggravate and intensify withdrawal symptoms. Several other factors can influence which alcohol withdrawal symptoms you get and how severely you get them: your general health, age, the severity of your last withdrawal episode, and the number of previous withdrawal episodes.3
Alcohol withdrawal treatment at home is risky—professional detox treatment can help mitigate these risks and ensure safety during the process. Other benefits of formal treatment include:
Because the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be fatal, experts believe that an inpatient or hospital setting is the safest option.
Alcohol detox can occur in different settings with varying levels of intensity because there is no single program that works best for everyone. Because the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be fatal, experts consistently state that an inpatient or hospital setting is the safest option.3
Alcohol detox program options include:
Inpatient Detox Centers
People struggling with alcohol use disorders are often unaware that several medications are available to help them during detox and recovery. The medications used can reduce the risk of dangerous complications and lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms:3,5