Alcohol addiction is a disease that, if left untreated, can cause just as severe of consequences as any illegal drug. This is called alcohol use disorder, or AUD. There is a reason that alcohol is considered a controlled substance – it brings with it a host of side effects that can be, at the least, dangerous, or even, at the worst, deadly.
If you are an occasional drinker, it is not likely that you are an alcoholic. However, if you have been drinking heavily for longer than a few days, you likely have an alcohol use disorder. When you choose to cut back on your drinking, you are going to experience some mental and physical effects as you go through alcohol withdrawal.
The longer you have been drinking, the more severe your withdrawal is likely to be. If you are a chronic alcoholic, one detox alone may not be enough. To break the cycle and stop your alcohol addiction, you will likely need to seek professional treatment.
However, some people attempt an alcohol detox on their own. To determine whether or not you can safely detox at your home, you need to understand exactly what the effects of alcohol are on your mind and body, and what happens when you go through alcohol withdrawal, or detox.
What Are the Effects of Alcohol on Your Mind and Body?
Alcohol is what is called a depressant. In other words, it slows down your brain function, making it sleepy. Gradually, your central nervous system gets used to having the alcohol around, making you able to function more “normally,” but the mental and physical effects are still going on.
Your body has to work extra hard to keep your brain awake. Your nerves are not connecting like they used to and your central nervous system has to work harder to get the receptors to respond to each other. They stay in this hard-working mode when you stop drinking, causing the effects that we know as withdrawal.
In addition to the sleepy state that your brain is placed in, there are also chemical reactions occurring. Alcohol provides your brain with certain chemicals that it is supposed to produce naturally. Instead, after you have provided your brain with these chemicals in the form of alcohol for long enough, your brain stops producing them and becomes dependent on the drug to provide those chemicals.
Your body has to adjust to this major chemical change when you stop drinking, and it does so in the form of symptoms like headaches, nausea, sweating, irregular heartbeats, and even hallucinations.
What is Alcohol Detox?
Alcohol detox is the first step in treating alcoholism. In the detox stage, alcohol is flushed from your body, putting your body into withdrawal. Depending on the severity of your addiction, withdrawal symptoms may last anywhere from one day to two weeks.
Sometimes this detox is minor, but other times the symptoms can be severe and painful. Because of this uncertainty, it is best to complete an alcohol detox in a professional treatment center environment if you have had a long-term alcohol addiction.
Symptoms of withdrawal can even change, going from mild and calm to severe and aggressive without notice. Treatment centers have medical professionals who can help you manage this pain with medications and other methods, letting you recover quicker and move on from your addiction.
This first stage of alcohol recovery is fragile. If you do not have help and support, you may find yourself turning back to the drug to avoid the symptoms of withdrawal, starting the cycle all over again.
What Are Some Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?
Because alcohol affects each person differently, so do the symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms can be mild and easily overcome, or they be can severe and life-threatening. If you have been a heavy drinker for years, you may have a harder time getting over the withdrawal and your symptoms may be more intense.
Mild symptoms may include effects such as anxiety, nausea, sweating, insomnia, and headaches. These effects, although difficult to go through, are not usually life-threatening. However, it is very easy to blame the effects instead of the source and turn back to alcohol as a method of self-treatment.
Serious symptoms can result in effects that are dangerous and life-threatening. Often, people in severe alcohol withdrawal complain of hallucinations. They see things that are not there, hear voices of people talking to them, or feel things touching them. This occasionally results in psychotic episodes due to delirium tremens, or DTs. You may also experience seizures as your body goes through an alcohol detox.
All of these symptoms are possible, and more, and you should plan to have medical help as you go through your alcohol detox stage. If you have a history of any kind of medical condition such as heart disease or lung problems, your withdrawal symptoms can worsen even faster.
A treatment specialist can monitor your blood pressure and heart rate and keep you from experiencing serious effects from the withdrawal like a heart attack. The specialist can also work with you to help you alleviate some of your pain.
How Long Does a Detox Take?
While there is no set timeline for every person, there is a process that your body goes through that you can expect and prepare for. The most severe symptoms generally last less than one week, while mild symptoms can be ongoing for up to a year.
Generally, the first six to twelve hours are what is known as the time for early withdrawal symptoms to occur. These are usually mild at first, with the ability to worsen quickly. Symptoms of early withdrawal can include nausea, irritability, headaches, shaking, and anxiety.
As the first day of detox ends, your symptoms will likely become worse. In addition to the early withdrawal symptoms, you will likely be experiencing confusion and disorientation. Your body may start trembling and you will most likely notice hand tremors. You may even experience seizures which, if you are not prepared for, can be dangerous.
These symptoms can continue into the next day as well. It is very common to experience panic attacks and hallucinations at this point. If you are not in a professional center for alcoholism treatment, it is very likely at this time you may give up and turn back to your drug of choice for self-medication. This stage is important, though, since your body is pushing the alcohol out of its system.
After the second day ends, you may start to experience different withdrawal symptoms. This is the precarious time when, if you are going to get them, you may get life-threatening symptoms even more dangerous than hallucinations and seizures. Symptoms like delirium tremens occur in the first week window, making it urgent that you have medical professionals on hand.
When you make it through the first week, most of these withdrawal symptoms will gradually ease off, persisting for a short time. These symptoms should be minor and treatable with the right medication.
However, some people do experience what is called post-acute withdrawal symptom, or PAWS. These are symptoms of detox that stay with you for prolonged periods of time. It is common to feel effects such as anxiety, trouble sleeping, and lack of energy as your body continues to deal with the effects of not having a toxic substance it had become dependent on. PAWS symptoms can last up to a year.
What Happens During an Alcohol Detox at a Center?
An alcohol detox program gives you guidance as you go through withdrawal. You will have an individualized program that helps you get through the first stage of recovering from an alcohol use disorder. This treatment will likely include medicine for your pain and medical and mental care for your other physical and emotional or behavioral symptoms.
The different care you will get depends on the treatment facility you use for your detox. However, most facilities will have an intake exam to get your history and determine what you will need as support during your withdrawal. This may include blood work and tests, as well as a discussion about your overall health and your drinking history.
You will have a team for detox support, including someone to provide you medication for your symptoms and help you with anything that occurs during this time. Most likely, you will have someone monitoring your blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature regularly.
You will also likely be given treatment options to help you on the road to recovery once you have gotten through withdrawal. This is only the first stage in breaking your AUD. You will need to continue to seek treatment to continue to keep your body clean of alcohol and drugs.
Where Should You Go for Help?
It is possible to experience your withdrawal and alcohol detox at home, but when you are not in a controlled environment, you are much more likely to turn back to alcohol before you make it through the entire process.
Seeking treatment at a professional alcohol rehabilitation center shows that you truly want to have help and you want to break the addiction cycle. It is your first step on your road to recovery. Through professional treatment centers, you can get the care you need to go through your alcohol detox, and the guidance you need to continue on your path to long-term sobriety.