Alcohol Detox Process: What Happens During Alcohol Detox?

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on October 4, 2021

Alcohol detoxification, or detox, is the body’s way of getting alcohol out of your system. Alcohol detox can, in severe cases, become dangerous. An alcohol detox program can offer medical treatment, safety during detox, and a referral for substance abuse treatment.

What Is The Alcohol Detox Process?

Alcohol detoxification, or detox, is the body’s way of getting rid of the alcohol in your system. Essentially, this is what happens when you stop drinking alcohol.

People who have developed alcohol dependence through chronic, heavy drinking may experience symptoms of alcohol withdrawal during this detoxification process.

Alcohol detox can be dangerous. For this reason, finding an alcohol detox program to help you stop drinking is highly recommended, particularly for those with an alcohol use disorder.

Read more about detoxing from alcohol

How The Alcohol Detox Process Works

Quitting alcohol once you’ve become physically dependent can cause the body to go through withdrawal. This can consist of both physical and psychological symptoms.

Signs of alcohol withdrawal can develop within hours of a person’s last drink and may last several days. For some, the full detoxification process will last a week or more.

During detox, alcohol withdrawal symptoms tend to get worse before they get better. Within a detox center, these symptoms—including alcohol cravings—can be effectively managed.

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Medical Detox Programs For Alcohol

Medical detox is a type of inpatient detox program. This offers the safest way for people with alcohol dependence to get sober from alcohol and begin the process of healing from addiction.

Medical detox consists of three primary steps:

  • intake assessment
  • detoxification and withdrawal
  • preparing for alcohol treatment

Medical detox is recommended for people who begin to experience withdrawal within 24 hours after last drinking alcohol.

Step 1: Alcohol Detox Intake Assessment

Upon admission to a detox program, individuals are assessed by a medical professional. This may involve both a physical and psychological assessment.

During this time, a treatment provider may ask questions such as:

  • What is your age?
  • When did you have your last drink?
  • How much alcohol do you typically drink?
  • How often have you been drinking this amount of alcohol?
  • Do you take any other drugs? (e.g. opioids, illicit drugs)
  • Do you have a history of drug abuse or drug addiction?
  • Have you been diagnosed with a mental health disorder?
  • Have you detoxed from alcohol before?
  • Do you feel physically sick if you go too long without alcohol?
  • Have you unsuccessfully tried to cut down on how much you drink before?

A healthcare professional may also ask questions regarding physical health and mental health. This will help them develop a detox treatment plan that can adequately meet your needs.

Step 2: Alcohol Detoxification And Withdrawal

After a detox plan is created, the actual process of detoxification begins. For most, early signs of alcohol withdrawal will begin to set in within 12 hours of their last drink.

Alcohol withdrawal can be physically uncomfortable. Within the first 48 hours, moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms, including seizures and hallucinations, can occur.

Symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal generally begin to decline after the first three to five days. Within a week, most physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal will go away.

Step 3: Preparing For An Alcohol Rehab Program

Alcohol detox is only the first step on the road to recovery from alcohol addiction. After this, it’s highly recommended that individuals begin an alcohol rehab program.

Many detox centers, and inpatient treatment facilities that offer detox, can help coordinate continued care in an inpatient or residential rehab center.

What an alcohol rehab program can offer:

  • medical care
  • behavioral therapy
  • substance use counseling
  • support groups
  • dual diagnosis
  • medication management
  • holistic therapies
  • relapse prevention
  • aftercare support

Alcohol rehab programs last 30 to 90 days, on average. The length of a rehab program can vary depending on the treatment facility, type of treatment program, and individual needs.

Outpatient Alcohol Detox Programs

Medical detox is the gold standard for detoxing from alcohol. But if this option isn’t accessible to you or a loved one, another option is outpatient alcohol detox.

Outpatient detox programs are less intensive than medical detox. This is not recommended for people with severe or chronic alcohol addiction.

Outpatient detox doesn’t involve staying in a detox center or treatment facility overnight. But it can offer a base level of support for people who are trying to stop drinking.

What Are The Risks Of Alcohol Detox?

Alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances to detox from.

This is because severe side effects, including life-threatening withdrawal seizures, can develop in the first 48 hours. This is most common in people who have certain risk factors.

Risk factors for severe alcohol withdrawal include:

  • older age
  • heavy alcohol consumption
  • very long history of heavy drinking
  • poor liver function or liver disease
  • poor nutritional status (i.e. malnutrition)
  • other mental health or medical conditions
  • past complications during alcohol detox

Severe alcohol withdrawal, referred to by clinicians as delirium tremens (DTs), can be deadly. For this reason, seeking medical help for alcohol detox can be life-saving.

Risk Of Relapse During Alcohol Detox

Relapsing to alcohol use is another concern. Within a detox program, alcohol is not available. But if you’re detoxing at home, returning to alcohol is an available option.

Reasons why relapse might occur:

  • withdrawal symptoms become severe
  • easy access to alcohol
  • cravings for alcohol
  • psychological reliance on alcohol
  • lack of access to treatment for alcohol addiction

Because the risk for relapse is high after detox, beginning an inpatient or outpatient rehab program for alcohol abuse is highly recommended after the detox process.

How Alcohol Detox Works FAQs

Understanding how alcohol detox works can help you prepare yourself or a loved one for a detox program. Find answers to common questions about alcohol detox here.

Detoxing from alcohol can lead to a number of side effects, collectively referred to as alcohol withdrawal syndrome. This can include mild symptoms and those that are more severe.

Early signs of this may include headache, tremors, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. After this can come moderate and severe symptoms, such as fast heart rate, agitation, and high blood pressure.

The average timeframe for alcohol detox is three to five days. This covers the acute withdrawal period.

Protracted withdrawal from detox, also known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome, may last weeks, months, or potentially years for those recovering from severe addiction.

Eating nutrient-dense foods during detox can help support physical recovery during alcohol withdrawal. A balanced diet, along with plenty of fluids, is recommended.

Alcohol withdrawal can be treated with supportive care, medication (e.g. benzodiazepines), fluid support through IV therapy, and by getting plenty of rest.

What else can help during alcohol detox:

  • vitamins and supplements (e.g. thiamine, B12)
  • drinking plenty of water or drinks with electrolytes (e.g. Gatorade)
  • behavioral counseling
  • regular medical monitoring
  • mindfulness and relaxation techniques

Detoxing from alcohol at home is not generally recommended. This comes with a risk for relapse, as well as an inability to properly manage severe symptoms of withdrawal should those develop.

A hospital is not the only setting in which a person can detox from alcohol.

Alcohol detox services are also offered by:

  • detox centers
  • inpatient addiction treatment centers
  • outpatient detox centers

Entering some kind of inpatient setting for alcohol detox is encouraged. Outside of a clinical setting, the effects of alcohol withdrawal can pose serious risks and dangers.

Find Alcohol Abuse And Addiction Treatment Today

Overcoming an addiction to alcohol is possible.

To find an alcohol detox program for yourself or a loved one, call our free and confidential helpline today to find alcohol treatment options near you.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on October 4, 2021
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