The Alcohol Detox and Withdrawal

When a heavy drinker attempts alcohol detox by quitting cold turkey, he or she can experience a variety of alcohol withdrawal symptoms.  These symptoms may range from minor problems like shakiness and insomnia to more severe symptoms including delirium tremens and seizures.  While detox may seem like an intimidating option, rest assured that doctors in inpatient rehab are very skilled at administering medications that make the detox process safer as well as easier to endure.

Doctors make a diagnosis of alcohol withdrawal when two or more of the following occur within a few hours or a few days after drinking has stopped:

  • Insomnia
  • Hand tremor
  • Heartbeat greater than 100 beats per minute
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Visual or auditory hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Anxiety
  • Agitated movement
  • Grand mal seizures

According to the Association of American Family Physicians, alcohol detox can effect long-term changes on neurons in the brain, especially when a drinker undergoes detox more than once.  Recurrent detox episodes are believed to increase alcohol cravings.  It is also believed that withdrawal and detox will become progressively more serious each time it is experienced.

Many people who are undergoing alcohol detox and withdrawal can be treated as outpatients, but severe cases require hospitalization.  When severe symptoms of delirium tremens are present, especially hallucinations and seizures, a doctor should be consulted immediately.  The U.S. National Institutes of Health reports that the mortality rate for delirium tremens is approximately 15%.  Another reason for consulting a doctor during severe alcohol detox is that there is always a chance that what appear to be alcohol detox symptoms are actually indicators of another medical condition, especially if seizures occur more than 48 hours after the last drink was taken.

The goals of treatment for alcohol detox are to help the patient safely complete alcohol withdrawal and to prepare the patient for immediate treatment for alcohol dependence.  Depending on the patient’s condition, medication may be administered to lessen the severity of alcohol detox symptoms.  Treatment of withdrawal symptoms alone will not address the underlying disease of addiction or help the patient achieve long-term abstinence from alcohol.