What to Expect During Alcohol Detox

Alcohol-use disorder, or AUD, more commonly referred to as alcoholism, is typically diagnosed when a pattern of alcohol use becomes problematic and causes enough distress to interfere with normal daily functioning. An AUD diagnosis can range from mild to severe, depending on the number of symptoms the patient exhibits.

Many people suffering from AUD acquire a physical alcohol dependence, resulting in their experiencing withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop consuming alcohol. The effects of sudden withdrawal on the mind and body can be distressing and even dangerous. Due to the potential danger, people with severe AUD should be placed in a detoxification program prior to beginning any effort to stop drinking.

Alcohol Detoxification Programs

Alcohol detox is a treatment program where the patient is carefully watched and withdrawal symptoms are managed as needed. Detox by itself is not treatment, but it is the first step in recovery for someone who is dependent on alcohol.

When someone with a dependence on alcohol suddenly stops drinking, withdrawal symptoms can start in as little as six hours after the last drink. Patients can begin developing symptoms even with alcohol still in their blood if the dependence is severe. People with AUD will have different needs when it comes to treatment. As symptoms have a range of severity, treatment is administered based on the severity of their symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms typically include anxiety and delirium tremens, commonly referred to as the “DTs.” Delirium tremens can be life-threatening as it results in an array of complications that include:

  • Confusion
  • Restlessness
  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Depression
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tremors, especially of the hands
  • Unstable changes in heart rate and blood pressure

Entering a Detox Program

A patient should enter into a detox program if they need alcohol for their body to feel and function normally. Patients are much more likely to complete a detoxification program when they have support for their physical and emotional symptoms.

Getting through detoxification isn’t simply a matter of willpower. For someone with AUD, quitting drinking cold turkey without medical assistance to manage their emotional and physical symptoms can place their life at risk. Even for people with less severe cases of AUD, detox can still be tough to handle on their own. Here a detox program can provide a support system to help manage the emotional issues associated with the detoxification process.

Managing Symptoms During Detox

Symptoms of alcohol detoxification often last a week or more, but the worst will typically pass within 24 to 72 hours.

In a professional detox setting, a healthcare provider can administer medications to help ease the physical and emotional symptoms and provide for mental-health issues with counseling, if needed. Medications can be provided to help control seizures and reduce anxiety, depression, and cravings. The goal of alcohol detox is to help the patient achieve mental and physical stability. A typical detox program will have the following basic structure:

  • An intake exam to determine what type of support the patient will require. This will typically include physical tests such as blood tests and a review of the patient’s health, medical and drinking history.
  • Tests to determine the patient’s mental health.
  • Detox support, including medications for withdrawal symptoms, if needed, and care for other issues that may arise.
  • Close monitoring of the patient’s heart rate, temperature, blood pressure and breathing throughout the detox process.
  • Assistance getting the patient into an ongoing treatment program to help them learn to break the addiction.

Types of Detoxification and Rehabilitation Programs

It is helpful to look ahead to rehab when considering a detox treatment, as some facilities will combine the two programs. The two basic options for detox programs are:

  • Inpatient Treatment: The patient stays at a hospital, clinic or rehab center during detox treatment with around-the-clock care. Inpatient treatment at a hospital is warranted if the patient has a serious medical or mental-health condition.
  • Outpatient Treatment: The patient is treated at a facility and then returns home. This can literally be as simple as the patient visiting their doctor to get the needed medications.

While inpatient treatment offers more services, it is more expensive. While outpatient treatment costs less and is normally safe and efficient for people in good mental and physical health with mild alcohol-withdrawal symptoms, it is not advised for patients with severe AUD. Outpatient treatment works best for those in good mental and physical health who have support at home and do not have a long history of problem drinking.

While there are outpatient rehabilitation programs, residential rehab programs allow patients to live at a center, typically for a period of one to three months. Residential-rehab centers are best for people with more severe cases of AUD who may struggle to stay sober after detox treatment.

An alternative to residential or inpatient treatment is day treatment, also referred to as partial hospitalization. This is a form of outpatient treatment that allows the patient to live at home and attend treatment at a medical facility several days a week.

Choosing a Program

The patient should begin by making a list of their needs. For example, if there is a medical or mental-health issue the patient will want to be sure services are in place to deal with those concerns. Or, if the patient has been struggling with long-term alcohol dependence, and does not have a strong support network, an inpatient program is probably the best option.

Once the recovery needs have been met the quality and cost of the program should be addressed. An affordable, licensed program with a professional staff and a high success rate is ideal. Some typical question that should be asked include:

  • What forms of insurance does the facility take?
  • How is their staff trained?
  • Are the facility and staff licensed?
  • Are onsite medical services and counseling provided?
  • Is there an aftercare program?
  • What is the facility’s success rate?

Typically, some program services will be covered by insurance, but it is important to know how much the insurance copay will be. An insurer will only cover legitimate and necessary medical services and will look at each specific case individually.

If you or someone you love is looking for an alcohol detox program, contact us for more information.