stages of alcohol detox

What are the Stages of Alcohol Detox?

Last Updated: Apr 28th 2020

Reviewed by Brian Ostertag

Alcohol detoxification is the process that your body goes through when ridding itself of toxins built up through long-term consumption of alcohol. Detox is generally the first step of any treatment program for alcohol addiction. 

Depending on the individual and the severity of the addiction, the exact alcohol detox process will vary. Alcohol detox can be generally divided into three stages. Each stage differs in the intensity of withdrawal symptoms.

It is understandable to become slightly overwhelmed by learning about alcohol detox and the process of getting clean. We’d like to encourage you to view this journey as a healing process. Although it is challenging, the long-term gain is much more rewarding. 

What is Alcohol Addiction?

Before we define the stages of alcohol detox, we must first understand what alcohol addiction is. Alcohol addiction, also referred to as alcoholism, is the most severe form of alcohol abuse. Those that struggle with alcohol addiction often feel as though they cannot function daily without alcohol. 

Consequently, this leads to interpersonal and physical issues that worsen over time. Career goals, personal matters, relationships, and overall health are all part of the equation that becomes affected.

Alcohol addiction must be recognized, and help must be sought after. Leaving addiction alone will only worsen its symptoms. Alcohol abuse can be recognized by some common symptoms, such as: 

  • Experiencing temporary blackouts or short-term memory loss
  • Exhibiting signs of irritability and extreme mood swings
  • Making excuses for drinking such as to relax, deal with stress, or feel normal
  • Choosing to drink over important responsibilities or priorities 
  • Becoming isolated and distant from loved ones
  • Drinking alone or in isolation
  • Feeling hungover when not drinking
  • Change of appearance (i.e. unkempt, untidy appearance)
  • Change of company (new group of friends you hang out with)

Fortunately, there are many components of treatment to overcome alcoholism. Treatment programs at a rehab such as North Jersey Recovery Center aim to guide you through the entire recovery process. From therapy to medical care, your needs will be met each step of the way.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Experiencing alcohol withdrawal is a tell-tale sign that your body and brain have become dependent on alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal alters the body’s response when a person suddenly stops drinking after prolonged and heavy alcohol use. As a result of long-term use, both the body and the brain become dependent on drinking frequency and patterns. 

Quitting “cold-turkey” results in your body not being able to readjust to functioning without alcohol quickly. This adjustment period causes the discomforting side effects of alcohol withdrawal, like shakes, insomnia, nausea, and anxiety. It is important to emphasize that this is temporary. Through alcohol detox and treatment, withdrawal symptoms alleviate, and you’ll find significantly improved health living a sober life.

Alcohol detox at a rehab facility under medical supervision is crucial. This is mainly due to the life-threatening health complications that can arise during alcohol detox. A rehab center will ensure your safety during detox with the right medication if necessary, as well as 24/7 support.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal 

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is the term that refers to symptoms that occur when a heavy drinker suddenly stops or significantly reduces their alcohol intake. These symptoms range from physical to emotional. They can include anything from mild anxiety and fatigue to nausea. 

During alcohol detox, symptoms of AWS are monitored and treated throughout the entire process. Symptoms of AWS include, but are not limited to:

  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure

These symptoms may worsen, which is why we strongly urge individuals to undergo alcohol detox at an accredited rehab facility. The most severe form of withdrawal syndrome is known as delirium tremens (DT). DT can include signs and symptoms of:

  • Extreme confusion
  • Extreme agitation
  • A fever
  • Seizures
  • Tactile hallucinations, such as having a sense of itching, burning, or numbness that isn’t taking place
  • Auditory hallucinations, or hearing sounds that don’t exist
  • Visual hallucinations, or seeing images that don’t exist

Severe AWS symptoms are a medical emergency. A high fever, hallucinations, and heart disturbances are all reasons to seek immediate help and call 911. Addressing alcohol addiction will help you to avoid the worsening of symptoms over time.

Treating Alcohol Withdrawal: The Timeline of Alcohol Detox

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal take place in three main stages during alcohol detox. These three stages go from mild symptoms to severe. However, as the detox process comes to an end, you’ll find yourself feeling much better and like your normal self again. It may be a process, but it’s a process that’s well worth it. 

To reiterate, AWS produces a broad range of symptoms that typically follow a timeline. These symptoms start between 6 and 24 hours after the last drink and can range in severity. 

Stage 1: Mild Symptoms

Mild symptoms will arise within about 6 to 8 hours of the alcohol detox process. These symptoms include fairly minuscule physical disturbances, as well as changes in behavior and mood. These symptoms can be similar to those of a hangover, so it is essential not to look past them. For an individual that has consumed a lot of alcohol for a substantial amount of time, it is crucial to address these symptoms. 

The first symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Convulsions
  • Whole-body tremor
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Profuse sweating
  • Shakiness
  • Hypertension
  • Heart failure

Stage 2: Moderate Symptoms

As the withdrawal symptoms from stage one of the alcohol detox begin to alleviate, the symptoms of the second stage will start to take place. The second stage of withdrawal is more serious. It typically begins within 12 to 24 hours of the last drink. However, it can take as long as three days for these symptoms to settle in. 

The symptoms of the second stage include:

  • Higher blood pressure
  • Respiration
  • Fever
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Sweating
  • Irritability

Stage 3: Severe Symptoms

Patients tend to experience severe symptoms between 48 to 72 hours into detoxification. The most severe effects include delirium tremens and seizures. One of the most dangerous aspects of these effects is that they can occur without a warning sign.

Approximately 3-5% of patients will experience DTs. This is why medical supervision during alcohol detox is crucial, not just recommended. Our priority is to keep you safe and comfortable as you continue along the recovery journey.

The third state includes symptoms of:

  • Hallucinations
  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Agitation

It’s important to keep in mind that this timeline differs depending on each unique person. The best way to keep track of the alcohol detox process is to have it monitored by a team of trained professionals. Alcohol detox is the first step of a sober and fulfilling life.

Drugs Used in Alcohol Detox

Medication will be administered during alcohol detox when necessary. If that’s the case, our medical staff will ensure that everything is done carefully and safely. Part of the alcohol detox process includes keeping the patient’s system in balance and avoiding major physiological upsets. Some examples of medications used are:

  • Librium
  • Ativan
  • Tranxene

Benzos are commonly used to alleviate alcohol withdrawal symptoms and prevent alcohol withdrawal seizures. Seizures are one of the most common causes of fatality in alcohol withdrawal, so additional anticonvulsant drugs, such as Keppra, are often used as well.

Treatment After Alcohol Detox

Once alcohol detox is completed, the next part of the recovery journey begins. Depending on your situation and the severity of the addiction, the program will vary. However, no matter the treatment, all of our patients receive the same core, quality treatment. 

Inpatient rehabilitation, otherwise known as residential treatment, is one of the most common ways to treat alcohol addiction. In an inpatient rehab program, the patient resides at the treatment facility for the full duration of the program. Most programs last anywhere from 20 to 90 days but can be longer if needed.

One of the main benefits of inpatient rehab is 24/7 access medical professionals during alcohol detox, as well as after. Each day will have a structured routine and include a variety of different methods towards treating alcohol addiction.

These methods include cognitive behavioral therapy, support groups, one-on-one therapy sessions, and much more. Residential treatment removes all distractions and environmental triggers by placing you in a supportive and healthy community. 

Seek Help Today!

Alcohol addiction does not need to control your life any longer. Alcohol detox is the first step in reclaiming your life and finding fulfillment again. We believe in personalized treatment for each patient’s unique circumstances. 

At North Jersey Recovery Center, we have many alcohol treatment resources to help you along the journey. Our team of expert physicians, psychologists, and other medical professionals are eager to help you change your life. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us here for more information about alcohol detox and corresponding treatment programs. 

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brian Ostertag

brian-ostertag-150x150Brian Ostertag, BA, MA, LCADC, CCS, is the Clinical Director for North Jersey Recovery Center. Brian is a compassionate leader with a desire to see others exceed, and who believes that people want to work hard at something they find meaningful and believe in. He is a strong addiction services professional with degrees in Psychology Addiction Studies, and Pastoral Counseling.

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