How to Detox From Alcohol Safely
For most of us, alcohol use begins with good intentions. Over time, however, occasional enjoyment can turn to alcohol dependence. When drinking becomes a habit, and alcohol addiction turns you into a functioning alcoholic, quitting becomes harder and harder.
That’s where the notion of detox comes in. Alcohol detox—the medical treatment whereby alcohol is totally flushed from the system—is the first step toward living a life free from addiction and the struggles that come with it.
If you or a loved one is showing signs of alcoholism and is considering seeking treatment for alcohol abuse, you’re on the right track with detox. With that said, not all treatment methods are the same. When learning how to detox from alcohol, it’s essential to do so carefully and responsibly.
As such, we’ll cover how to detox from alcohol, and more importantly, how to do so safely with the help of holistic rehab programs.
What is Alcohol Detox?
Although our society doesn’t always treat it as such, alcohol is a drug.1 Like all drugs, alcohol can be addicting. Frequent or excessive drinking can lead to a mental and physical dependence on alcohol.
Treating this dependence is known as alcohol detoxification (usually shortened to alcohol detox). Simply put, detox refers to eliminating alcohol from the body. However, the word “detox” can actually mean one of two things:
- The detox process – One meaning is the physical process itself. When you stop drinking, your system slowly flushes out the substance. This process is also called withdrawal.
- Detox treatment – Going to a treatment center to undergo alcohol withdrawal under professional supervision is also called detox.
In both cases, detox is a means of treating alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUD is the medical term for alcoholism,2 and it’s characterized by the inability to stop drinking in the face of social, familial, or other consequences.3
Although 14.5 million Americans have AUD, less than 10% go on to receive treatment.4 However, when they do, they typically detox in one of two ways:
- At-home detox – Also known as outpatient detox, this treatment occurs from home. Technically, a self-administered detox is considered an at-home treatment, though this process is unsafe and never recommended. Instead, most outpatient detox treatments involve semi-regular check-ins with a medical professional.
- Medical detox – Also called inpatient detox, this treatment takes place in a facility with round-the-clock care, therapy, and—when necessary—medication. Medical detox is often the first step in rehabilitation (alcohol rehab), a more holistic approach to treating substance abuse.
While both types of treatment are supposed to have the same result, they’re not the same. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how to detox your body from alcohol properly and the efficacy and safety of each method.
Is it Safe to Detox At-Home?
While some patients may find success with an at-home detox program for some substances, the reality is that trying an alcohol detox from home can be unsafe. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are unpredictable and can range from headaches and agitation to tremors and severe anxiety.5
In more serious cases, withdrawal can even be fatal.5 Even something as simple as the nausea associated with alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is a cause for concern. Vomiting and loss of consciousness do not pair well, and these relatively minor symptoms can be downright dangerous without supervision.
What’s more, attempting to detox from home can also be more challenging. Many at-home detox patients struggle for several reasons, including:
- Hardwired habits – Although staying at home may seem more comfortable than relocating to a medical facility, the familiarity of home can lead to issues. Being at home often means staying in the same patterns that may have contributed to alcohol dependence. As you can imagine, habits are harder to break when your social circle, environment, and stressors remain unchanged.
- Limited support – 24/7 supervision is typically unavailable for at-home detox treatments. As such, an at-home detox may feel like little more than a counseling program—it can certainly help, but it’s unlikely to solve the issue entirely.
- Isolation – Navigating alcohol detox through the stages of alcohol withdrawal can be tricky in any situation. But it can be even tougher for those living alone. Without the group setting that many detox facilities offer, quitting drinking can feel like an uphill battle.
- Temptation – All these factors together can make drinking more appealing than detoxing, and the possibility of relapse may increase for at-home patients.
Of course, some alcohol addiction treatment centers offer outpatient addiction treatment, either in an alcohol detox center or virtually. These services can be safe and effective, but this option is only recommended if your addiction has not exceeded a certain threshold and your health is excellent.
No matter what, you should never attempt an at-home detox without professional medical guidance—even if you think you know how to detox from alcohol safely.
Medical Detox Treatment
With a medical detox treatment, the process is much more thorough, controlled, and comfortable. From the beginning, patients are treated with the utmost care and respect, receiving round-the-clock support and supervision when necessary.
Most medical detox programs start with an evaluation of physical and mental health. Clinical staff understand how to detox from alcohol successfully and will typically sit with new patients and learn about their history, struggles, and medical conditions.
From there, the staff can create a personalized plan, and the detox can begin in earnest.
One part of that plan may include medication. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can often be intense, and medications can help make this period of transition much easier to manage. Some of the medications that treatment centers may provide include:6
- Benzodiazepines (to reduce withdrawal severity)
- Anticonvulsant drugs (to reduce seizures)
- Adrenergic medications (to lower blood pressure)
- Baclofen (to relax the muscles)
However, while medications can help with detox in the short term, they can also lead to dependence when used incorrectly. That’s why the best detox centers take care not to over-prescribe medication while leaning on other holistic treatments such as therapy, exercise, and mindfulness. If you’re unsure how long it takes to detox from alcohol, the answer will depend on the severity of the situation and the program itself.
Overall, medical detox programs are generally safer and more successful than at-home treatments. And traveling for inpatient detox comes with a range of other benefits, including:
- A fresh start – Sometimes, a new environment can be the change you need to kickstart a new chapter of your life.
- A peaceful location – Many detox and alcohol rehab facilities are located in secluded, serene areas that make detoxing less stressful.
- A community – Medical detox treatments tend to involve groups of people going through similar circumstances, which means there will always be someone who understands your situation.
Symptoms During Detox
Aside from minor symptoms like headaches, nausea, and irritability, detox can also come with moderate to severe symptoms.
Alcohol withdrawal looks different for everyone, so none of these issues are guaranteed. However, they’re always a possibility, which is why a medical detox treatment is worthwhile. Some of the more notable symptoms include:7
- Fluctuations in body temperature – Excessive sweating and clammy skin are common during detox.
- Loss of appetite – Many detox patients report having no desire to eat.
- Seizures – While rarer, seizures can lead to uncontrolled movements, abnormal behavior, or even loss of consciousness. Many detox medications look to reduce the possibility of seizures.
- Anxiety and depression – Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, uneasiness, and dread are also common symptoms.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome – Some detox patients may experience this disorder while undergoing treatment.5 Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome symptoms include vision problems, confusion, a lack of muscle coordination, and hypothermia.
- Delirium tremens (DTs) – The most severe (and rare) symptom of alcohol withdrawal can cause extreme confusion, hallucinations, and cardiovascular issues.8 These symptoms usually appear two to three days into detox. When left untreated, DTs can be fatal—this is why despite the resources available on how to detox from alcohol, it should never be undergone unsupervised.
Although these symptoms can complicate the detox process, they’re not impossible to navigate. When proper round-the-clock supervision is guaranteed and medication is provided by a health professional, all symptoms of alcohol withdrawal become more manageable and less risky.
How to Prepare for Alcohol Detox
Another way to make detoxing from alcohol safer and easier is to prepare for treatment.
- Speak with a medical professional – A doctor or alcohol addiction treatment specialist can walk you through the detox process in more detail. They may also be able to help you come up with a plan for before and after treatment.
- Drink plenty of water – Staying hydrated can help reduce the severity of some withdrawal symptoms.
- Eat healthy – Similarly, eating a varied diet full of nutritious foods can make detox easier.
- Familiarize yourself with detox – The idea of detox can admittedly be scary, and understanding the realities of how to detox your body from alcohol is one of the best things you can do to prepare. Reading books and guides from people who have been through detox can help you realize that while detoxing may not be easy, the outcome is positive.
- Find your support system – If possible, identify the friends and family members that can support you before, during, and after detox. Having someone to offer emotional support and hold you accountable is invaluable.
With all of that said, medical detox treatments are designed to help anyone—prepared or not. If you’re unable to follow these tips to prepare, detox is still an option.
Medical Treatment: The Safest Way to Detox
Ultimately, the best detox program is the one that will stick. In the majority of cases, that means a medical detox at a dedicated treatment center.
However, not all programs are created equal. At Elevate Addiction Services, we understand the importance of treatment and recovery that goes beyond detoxification and getting sober. Our services at our holistic rehab centers in California extend to every part of life, giving you the tools and confidence you need to thrive after detox.
With state-of-the-art treatment centers in Santa Cruz and Lake Tahoe, Elevate Addiction Services offers a comfortable, comprehensive approach to alcohol detox. Contact us to learn more about our detox programs and see if your insurance covers treatment.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. Alcohol. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/alcohol
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)? https://alcoholtreatment.niaaa.nih.gov/what-to-know/alcohol-use-disorder
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Facts and Statistics. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
- National Library of Medicine. Alcohol Withdrawal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441882/
- National Library of Medicine. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4606320/
- Mount Sinai. Alcohol withdrawal. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/diseases-conditions/alcohol-withdrawal
- National Library of Medicine. Delirium Tremens. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482134/
Scott Friend, MSW, M.S.
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