Alcohol Detox: A Brief Overview of the Process and Its Importance in Recovery

Alcohol detoxification is often referred to by addiction counselors and clients as alcohol detox or simply detox. It occurs when an individual stops consuming alcoholic beverages. This allows their body to expel the toxins that have accumulated and begin the recovery process. Professional detox is generally recommended for individuals who have consumed excessive amounts of alcohol for a prolonged period of time. It is the first and most critical step of the recovery process because starts the process of getting rid of the physical dependency on alcohol. Due to the potentially severe withdrawal symptoms, such as tremors, elevated heart rate and anxiety, it is advisable to seek assistance from a recovery center that can offer medication-assisted detoxification services.

Alcohol Detox

The Alcohol Detox Process

For simplicity purposes, the process of detoxing from alcohol is typically divided into three separate stages. The first stage is evaluation. The second stage is stabilization, and the third stage is the transition into a treatment program so that the individual can learn about addiction and develop the coping skills needed in order to achieve long-term sobriety.

1. Evaluation

Everyone who enters detox must first undergo an evaluation. This involves a comprehensive medical assessment by a healthcare professional. During this stage, the individual’s physical and mental health will be evaluated in order to determine the most appropriate course of treatment.

The physical examination is used to assess the individual’s overall health and to identify any medical conditions that may require immediate attention. The healthcare professional may also review the individual’s medical history.

The mental health evaluation is the second critical component of the assessment. Alcohol withdrawal can have significant psychological effects that can manifest as symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. If the individual has any preexisting mental health issues, it can make them worse. Therefore, it is important that these are identified prior to beginning the detox process. This allows for both the alcohol use disorder and the mental health condition to be treated at the same time.

2. Stabilization

Stabilization is where the individual officially begins the detox process. Since the severity of the withdrawal symptoms can vary between individuals, it’s important to be under the care of medical personnel. The most common symptoms include anxiety, nausea, headaches, increased heart rate and sweating. However, symptoms can become rapidly worse. To help control these symptoms, the individual may be given medication to help keep them stable.

3. Transition to Treatment

After completing the stabilization stage and successfully managing their withdrawal symptoms, the individual should transition to a more comprehensive treatment program, which can include inpatient or outpatient care. The choice is up to the individual and the medical team at the detox facility. It’s important to note that inpatient treatment typically offers better success rates as it removes all the triggers and tempting situations while the individual gets used to being sober and living life without the aid of alcohol. Outpatient treatment is typically recommended for individuals with a low chance of relapse who have work, school or family obligations that they must tend to while undergoing treatment.

How Long Does Detox Last?

Alcohol detoxification doesn’t usually last longer than two weeks, and most people can expect to get through the process in as few as five days or as many as 10. However, the length of your detoxification program will depend on the level of your dependency and the severity of your withdrawal symptoms. In general, most individuals start experiencing symptoms of withdrawal about six hours after their last drink. These symptoms are usually mild and may include a headache or an upset stomach.

About 12 to 24 hours after the individual’s last drink, he or she may start to experience hallucinations, meaning he or she may see or hear things that don’t actually exist in their environment. Between 24 to 48 hours after the last drink, the withdrawal symptoms may get worse and include severe headaches, vomiting, anxiety and tremors or uncontrollable shaking.

During a mild case of withdrawal, the individual can expect the symptoms to be at their worst between 18 and 24 hours after their last alcoholic beverage. From that point, symptoms should start to improve.

However, if the individual start to experience severe withdrawal, the worst of the AWS symptoms will begin to occur within two to three days or 48 to 72 hours after their last alcoholic beverage. At this stage, the individual could start to experience delirium tremens, which is a medical emergency as it can cause seizures, excessive body temperature and an increased heart rate. Individuals who experience these symptoms need immediate medical treatment.

Most individuals will start to feel better and recover from the AWS after 72 hours. However, in rare cases, AWS symptoms can last as long as a month. This is why it’s extremely important to utilize the services of an experienced detox facility.

Withdrawal Symptoms and Their Management

Individuals who have been drinking excessive amounts of alcohol for prolonged periods of time may develop Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS), which can cause some significant symptoms. Let’s take a look at the various severity levels of AWS.

  • Mild Symptoms – Symptoms of alcohol detox typically start off mild and include headaches, nausea, vomiting and agitation. The individual may also have a strong desire to resume drinking. This is normal, and the symptoms can usually be managed with rest, over-the-counter medications and remembering why he or she wants to stop drinking.
  • Moderate Symptoms – Moderate symptoms may include tremors or shaking, increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure. These symptoms are regarded as more serious and may require medical intervention in order to prevent a health emergency.
  • Severe Symptoms – Severe symptoms, including seizures, hallucinations and delirium tremens, can be life-threatening. They require immediate medical attention and intensive treatment.

Medical Supervision and Medications

Medical supervision is crucial during alcohol detoxification in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the individual undergoing treatment. Medical professionals can monitor and manage the potentially severe withdrawal symptoms that may arise during the detox stage as well as provide any necessary medical interventions.

Common Medications Used During Detoxification

When medications are used to manage AWS during detox, it’s known as medication-assisted detoxification. These medications are used to treat the various symptoms that may appear while the individual’s body detoxes from the alcohol.

  • Benzodiazepines – Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam and lorazepam, are commonly used to manage anxiety and reduce the risk of seizures during alcohol detoxification.
  • Anticonvulsants – Anticonvulsants, like carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine and valproic acid, can help prevent seizures in people experiencing severe AWS and reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
  • Antipsychotics – Antipsychotic medications, such as haloperidol and olanzapine, may be used to manage hallucinations, delusions, and other severe psychiatric symptoms during detoxification.
  • Vitamin and Mineral Supplements – Vitamin and mineral supplements, such as Vitamin B (thiamine), Vitamin C, retinol and magnesium, may be prescribed to address nutritional deficiencies that often accompany alcohol abuse.

Post-Detox Considerations

It’s important to understand that the detox process is only the first step of recovery for individuals with alcohol use disorder. In order to stay sober and live a healthy and productive lifestyle, the individual will need to enter a treatment program, like those offered at Long Island Interventions.

Transitioning to Ongoing Treatment

Ongoing treatment helps individuals address the underlying causes of their addiction, learn coping skills and prevent relapses. Recommended ongoing treatment options typically include inpatient or outpatient care.

Inpatient Care

Inpatient treatment, which is sometimes called residential treatment, entering the treatment facility and remaining there for the duration of your rehabilitation program. This is typically recommended for individuals who are at a high risk of relapsing or who are expressly worried about relapsing after they complete the detox process. Inpatient treatment programs typically offer individual and group therapy as well as cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, dual diagnosis and holistic treatment options.

Outpatient Care

Outpatient programs for alcohol use disorder can either be standard or intensive. In both programs, treatment typically involves a combination of individual and group therapy as well as support groups. Some treatment programs also offer medication-assisted treatment, which involves taking a medication instead of consuming alcohol. The difference between these two programs is how many days a week you go to the treatment center and the number of hours you spend at the center in order to receive your rehabilitation services.

The Importance of Aftercare and Support

Aftercare may include individual or group therapy, support groups and continuing medication-assisted treatment. Support from friends and family, as well as participation in recovery communities, can also help provide emotional support, accountability and motivation to continue on the path of sobriety.

Aftercare treatment options can include continuing outpatient treatment, support groups, sober living homes and even sober coaches.

  • Continuing Outpatient – Continuing outpatient usually includes ongoing therapy and counseling sessions to help the individual stay on track. This option can also be used for individuals who have just completed an inpatient program.
  • Support Groups – Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART Recovery, provide ongoing peer support and encouragement to maintain sobriety.
  • Sober Living – Sober living homes provide a supportive, drug-free environment for individuals in recovery. Residents are typically required to follow house rules, attend meetings and participate in household duties. These are sometimes referred to as halfway houses, because the individual is at the halfway point between treatment and going home.
  • Sober Coaches – A sober coach can help an individual continue their recovery. These are often individuals who have gone through treatment for addiction, and they can help bridge the gap between the support you get from your therapist and the support you receive from your immediate and extended family, friends and coworkers.


Recovery from alcohol addiction is a journey that requires commitment, patience and ongoing support. At Long Island Interventions, we offer several treatment programs for individuals with alcohol use disorder who are ready to stop drinking alcohol and learn how to live a sober lifestyle. We offer interventions for family members who are worried about confronting a loved one with alcohol use disorder as well as inpatient and outpatient recovery services. We can even provide referrals and references for experienced and caring detox facilities that can help you start the process of getting rid of your alcohol dependency.

To get help for your alcohol use disorder so that you can live the rest of your life sober, give us a call today!

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