How Long Does Alcohol Detox Treatment Take?

Published: 10/31/2015 | Author:

In spite of alcohol’s acceptance as a recreational indulgence, alcohol abuse and addiction rates continue to top all other illicit substances. While not everyone will succumb to alcohol’s addictive effects, those with genetic and/or psychological predispositions face a real struggle in controlling their alcohol intake. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, an estimated 24.9 percent of American adults reported engaging in heavy drinking practices in 2013. Heavy drinking practices set the stage for alcohol use disorders to take root. For people with a history of alcohol abuse, putting a stop to drinking can be difficult to say the least. Alcohol detox treatment offers the types of physical and psychological supports needed to make it through this difficult first stage of recovery. As each person’s body responds to alcohol in different ways, alcohol detox treatment durations can vary depending on a number of factors.

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Alcohol Effects on Brain Function

Alcohol works as a depressant, slowing down the brain’s electrical activity and disrupting neurotransmitter production rates. According to the American Family Physician, alcohol’s primary effects target the brain’s inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitter systems.

Over time, the cells producing these chemicals develop a tolerance to alcohol’s depressant effects. Unless a person increases his or her alcohol intake, the dreaded withdrawal symptoms will start to develop.

These same effects result whenever a person attempts to stop drinking altogether. When alcohol is withheld, the brain’s levels of excitatory neurotransmitter chemicals far exceed those of inhibitory chemicals causing an overall imbalance within the brain’s chemical system.

This imbalance impairs the brain’s ability to regulate bodily processes as normal. Alcohol detox treatment works to restore the brain’s natural balance, which in turn relieves uncomfortable withdrawal effects.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Alcohol detox treatment programs specialize in treating alcohol withdrawal syndrome or AWS, a set of symptoms that develop whenever a person ceases from moderate to heavy drinking practices. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism, AWS symptoms can develop within hours of a person’s last drink.

For most people entering alcohol detox treatment, symptoms commonly experienced include:

  • Alcohol cravings
  • Anxiety
  • Hypersensitivity to external stimuli
  • Tremors
  • Problems sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Vivid dreams
  • Mood swings

In most cases, these symptoms subside within hours or days regardless of whether a person enters alcohol detox treatment; however, depending on symptom severity, it can be extremely difficult to resist the urge to drink during this time.

Alcohol Detox Process

Alcohol Detox Treatment

Without treatment, alcoholics are at high risk of relapse during withdrawal.

The degree of discomfort experienced throughout the alcohol detox process directly corresponds with the severity of the addiction. In general, strong cravings for alcohol mark the first few hours into the detox process soon to be followed by many of the physical withdrawal symptoms.

During the first two days of alcohol detox treatment, symptom severity gradually increases before peaking at the five to seven day mark. People coming off chronic or long-term drinking histories face a dangerous time during this initial phase as the brain struggles to maintain normal bodily functions.

In the absence of alcohol detox treatment, a person experiences the very worst of symptoms making it all the more difficult to maintain abstinence throughout. For people experiencing an especially difficult time, alcohol detox treatment programs can provide medication treatments to help reduce the severity of withdrawal effects.

Severe Cases of Withdrawal

Severe cases of withdrawal affect those recovering from severe alcohol addictions. On average, one out of every four chronic drinkers experience severe withdrawal episodes, which can be dangerous and even life threatening.

Also, known as “delirium tremens,” severe withdrawal episodes can last anywhere from a couple minutes to a couple weeks depending on a person’s physical condition. While in alcohol detox treatment, delirium tremens symptoms may develop within the first 12 hours or take as long as four days before symptoms start to develop.

Symptoms commonly associated with delirium tremens include:

  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Fever

Delirium tremens is a serious medical disorder that warrants alcohol detox treatment help. While not all heavy drinkers will develop these symptoms, some symptoms can cause irreparable harm when left untreated. For these reasons, people coming off long-time histories of alcohol abuse would do well to seek out alcohol detox treatment to reduce the risk of long-term damage to the brain and/or body.

Health Status

During the course of heavy drinking, alcohol causes widespread damage to the body’s cells and tissues. As the liver can only metabolize so much alcohol at a time, any excess amounts continue to move through the bloodstream.

In effect, the higher the blood-alcohol-content the more damage done to the body. When this process occurs on a repeated and long-term basis, someone entering alcohol detox treatment will likely have developed a range of health problems. Consequently, alcohol detox treatment durations can run longer in cases of serious medical complications, some of which include:

  • Liver disease
  • Inflamed stomach lining causing bleeding in the stomach
  • Pancreatitis
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Cardiomyopathy, a disorder of the heart muscle
  • Vitamin deficiencies involving thiamine and folate

Any one of the above health complications may well require intensive medical care, which ultimately extends the amount of time a person spends in alcohol detox treatment.

Alcohol Detox Treatment Settings

Alcohol detox treatment settings vary in the level or intensity of care provided. In general, the more severe the alcohol addiction the more intensive the level of treatment should be.

In cases of mild to moderate addiction, outpatient alcohol detox treatment may suffice provided a person has a healthy support system in place. People at the early stages of alcohol abuse may well be able to detox at home provided they’re highly motivated to get well and/or have a solid support system in place.

For people coming off chronic alcohol addictions, inpatient alcohol detox treatment and even hospitalization may be warranted depending on one’s health status. This level of treatment should also be considered under the following conditions:

  • Past history of severe withdrawal episodes
  • Multiple past attempts at detox
  • Severe psychiatric disorders
  • Chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease
  • Pregnancy

While a number of factors can influence the amount of time a person spends in alcohol detox, the severity of a person’s addiction will ultimately determine how long alcohol detox treatment will take.

Find alcohol detox centers across the country by searching our directory, or call our helpline at 866-351-3840(Who Answers?) to speak with a treatment specialist. 

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