Alcohol Detox: How Long Does It Take and What Happens?

Alcohol Detox: How Long Does It Take and What Happens?
Anyone who is addicted to alcohol must go through a period of withdrawal before entering an addiction treatment program. The common term for this withdrawal period is alcohol detox. In terms of how long it lasts and exactly what happens, the detoxification process varies from person to person. The severity of alcohol addiction plays a major role in determining these factors.

Why Does Alcohol Withdrawal Occur?

Alcohol addiction changes the normal function of the human brain. Instead of treating the presence of alcohol as an occasional or unusual event, the brain treats it as an expectation. When this expectation goes unmet, the brain sends out warning signals meant to alert the body to its changing circumstances. These signals manifest in the form of withdrawal symptoms[i].

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Degrees of Withdrawal

Everyone detoxing from alcohol experiences different symptoms and severity of symptoms. Doctors and addiction specialists recognize three basic degrees of alcohol withdrawal: mild, moderate and severe[ii]. A person going through mild withdrawal typically experiences the least serious symptoms, and these symptoms often last for a relatively short amount of time. On the other hand, a person going through severe withdrawal experiences at least some of the most serious symptoms and may go through a drawn-out detox process.

How Long Does Withdrawal Last?

Withdrawal usually begins somewhere within six hours to a full day after an addicted person stops drinking. However, sometimes it might not begin for two days or more. For most people, the active symptoms of withdrawal last somewhere between five and seven days, while other people may continue to feel the effects of withdrawal for two weeks or longer. Most people going through detox feel their worst sometime between three and five days after they stop consuming alcohol. But again, some of those affected may experience their peak symptoms at some point outside this narrow range.

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Specific Alcohol Detox Symptoms

Doctors classify alcohol withdrawal into three distinct stages, which generally correspond to the severity of symptoms present. Stage One symptoms[iii] are common to essentially all detox participants. They may include:

  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Unusually high levels of anxiety or outright bouts of panic
  • Sleeplessness
  • High body temperature
  • Excessive sweating
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Unusual nervous system sensations (e.g., tingling or numbness)
  • Uncontrolled muscle tremors
  • Nausea with or without vomiting

In people heavily affected by alcoholism, Stage One may also include symptoms of a condition called alcoholic hallucinosis, which appears within half a day to 24 hours. The symptoms of alcoholic hallucinosis, or alcohol-induced psychotic disorder, can include:

  • Touch-related hallucinations (more likely than other types of hallucinations)
  • Vision-related hallucinations
  • Sound-related hallucinations
  • Delusional thinking (including paranoia)

When they occur at all, Stage Two alcohol withdrawal symptoms typically appear within one to three days after alcohol intake ceases. Another primary symptom happening at this level of detox is the occurrence of some sort of seizure. In a worst-case scenario, a full-body, grand mal seizure can occur. Other symptoms possible at Stage Two include:

  • An extremely rapid heartbeat
  • Extremely high blood pressure
  • A confused mental state

Roughly one-third of all people who experience Stage Two seizures during the detox process will enter Stage Three alcohol withdrawal. This stage is marked by the onset of delirium tremens (the DTs), a potentially lethal complication. Potential symptoms of delirium tremens include:

  • A delirious, disoriented mental state
  • A periodically disrupted ability to use higher-level mental functions (e.g., language or memory)
  • Vision-related hallucinations
  • Severe instability in the body’s involuntary nervous system, leading to life-threatening changes in heart function and body temperature

What Happens In Medically Controlled Detox?

Some people attempt to go through alcohol detox on their own. However, no one can predict exactly what will happen during the course of withdrawal. Complications can arise even in people only mildly affected by the process. And in cases of Stage Two or Stage Three withdrawal, unforeseen changes in a person’s condition can easily produce severe repercussions, up to and including death.

For these reasons, anyone attempting to break an addiction to alcohol should undergo detox in a properly monitored setting. Doctors and support personnel with the proper training can closely track the changes that occur during withdrawal. They can also respond quickly to emergency situations and help prevent severe, potentially fatal outcomes.

Trained professionals also understand one crucially important fact. Namely, without follow-up enrollment in an alcohol treatment program, the detox process usually doesn’t have much of a lasting benefit. A newly sober person who lacks the proper guidance and support stands a very good chance of returning to active drinking. Unfortunately, a rapid return to excess alcohol consumption creates a new set of risks and boosts the odds that an alcohol overdose (i.e., alcohol poisoning) will occur.

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Detox Treatments

In medically supervised alcohol detox doctors, and other medical professionals, monitor their clients to help ease the impact of withdrawal and stop the onset of any complications. Methods used to achieve these goals include:

  • Use of tranquilizing or sedating medications
  • IV (intravenous) fluid support
  • Ongoing review of all vital signs (e.g., heart rate and blood pressure)

Some people can go through detox as outpatients. However, the presence of moderate or severe symptoms may lead to a requirement for short-term hospitalization and enrollment in a partial hospitalization program (PHP).

Seeking Alcohol Treatment

In the U.S., millions of adults and teenagers have diagnosable alcohol problems, including symptoms of abuse and/or addiction. Unfortunately, many of these people never attempt to stop drinking or attempt detoxing on their own.

At Transformations Treatment Center, we specialize in expert care for all phases of alcohol detox and treatment. Our Summit Detox facility, in Boynton Beach, Florida, offers a safe and comfortable environment for the detoxification from drugs and alcohol. Alcohol detox is the first step to help you get through the recovery process and start living a sober life.

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