Editorial Team

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MODULE 5:

5 What is Alcohol Detox?

Alcoholic drinks contain ethyl alcohol, also called ethanol, which is a toxic substance, and the only form of alcohol considered “safe” to drink. If an individual has been consuming alcohol excessively over an extended period or is diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD), the cessation of their alcohol use will cause withdrawal symptoms.

1. Medically-Assisted Alcohol Detox: Withdrawing from Alcohol Safely

Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild through to severe depending on the individual’s alcohol intake. If an individual is drinking heavily, as in the case of AUD, withdrawing from alcohol without medical care is dangerous, and has been known to prove life-threatening.

A professional, medically-supervised alcohol detox (or detoxification) ensures an individual withdraws from alcohol safely and securely. Medical staff are on-hand to monitor the detox process, and to administer specific medications, if required.

The medications used in a medically-supervised alcohol detox to ease some of the withdrawal symptoms include benzodiazepines, which are used to counteract the anxiety produced as a withdrawal symptom. Common benzodiazepines used in alcohol detox include diazepam (valium) and chlordiazepoxide (librium).

2. Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can occur after 2 hours, and up to 4 days after stopping alcohol use. Depending on historical alcohol intake, these symptoms can be common or severe:

Common Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Increased heart rate
  • Feeling depressed
  • Pale skin
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Poor cognition
  • Nightmares
  • Dilated pupils
 
alcohol withdrawal symptoms

Severe Withdrawal Symptoms

One of the most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms is delirium tremens, also known as “the DTs.” Around 3% to 5% of individuals withdrawing from heavy alcohol use will experience delirium tremens. If left untreated, this condition can prove fatal. If you or a loved one show any symptoms of the DTs, seek emergency medical treatment immediately as symptoms will likely worsen.

  • Fever
  • Extreme confusion
  • Extreme agitation
  • High blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations

3. Medically-Assisted Detox vs. “Cold Turkey”

When someone attempts to quit alcohol “cold turkey” (normally at home, but importantly, without medical supervision), they are susceptible to all the withdrawal symptoms listed above – both common and severe. In addition, the stress placed on the body by the detox process can also lead to:

  • Aspiration pneumonia
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Kidney or liver dysfunction

Furthermore, the individual will experience intense cravings for alcohol. Attempting to detox at home without the assistance, guidance, and support of medical professionals puts any chance of recovery at risk of relapse. Lastly, for many going through detox alone, the pain of withdrawal symptoms can result in immediately resuming their alcohol use.

4. Alcohol Detox: The First Step

It should be remembered with any substance addiction treatment that detox is only the very first step of the process of recovery. Ridding the body safely of alcohol does not cure alcoholism. It does, however, bring clarity to the mind and begin to heal the body, so that an individual suffering from alcohol addiction is best placed to continue their treatment.

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