Alcohol Detox Side Effects
Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to physiological dependence and addiction, or alcohol use disorder. When someone who is dependent on alcohol suddenly stops drinking, they will experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which can be managed in a detox setting. The side effects of alcohol detox can range from mildly uncomfortable to severe and potentially life-threatening, which is why professional treatment is the safest option.
In this article:
- Why Do Side Effects of Alcohol Detox Happen?
- What Are the Side Effects of Alcohol Detox?
- How Do I Know if I Need Medical Intervention?
- What Types of Facilities Are Available?
- What Are the Benefits of Alcohol Detox?
Why Do Side Effects of Alcohol Detox Happen?
When you misuse alcohol heavily over time, you can become dependent on the substance. This means your brain and body have adjusted to the presence of alcohol and need it in order to function optimally. When you suddenly stop or reduce your drinking, unpleasant alcohol withdrawal symptoms or alcohol detox side effects emerge.
About half of all individuals who have an alcohol use disorder will experience alcohol detox symptoms when they cut down or stop their alcohol use.1,2 Anyone who engages in chronic alcohol misuse can develop physical or psychological dependence.<sup3
The use of alcohol can change your molecular and cellular structures, especiall those in your brain.4 It is these changes, or neuroadaptations, that influence dependence, withdrawal symptoms, cravings, and more.
What Are the Side Effects of Alcohol Detox?
Side effects from alcohol detox are also referred to as alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The symptoms you experience can vary from the symptoms of others. Withdrawal symptoms are influenced by many factors including:
- Your age
- Your gender
- If you are using other substances
- If you have any other medical conditions
- How long and often you have been consuming alcohol
- How much alcohol you are consuming
- If you have a family history of alcohol and substance use disorders
These side effects can begin as quickly as 6-24 hours since your alcohol use has been reduced or stopped. These symptoms can range anywhere between mild and severe, even life-threatening.1,2
Alcohol detox side effects include both physical and psychological aspects.
Physical Side Effects of Alcohol Detox
Some physical side effects include:1,2
- Delirium tremens
- Elevated heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Twitches and muscle spasms
Psychological Side Effects of Alcohol Detox
Psychological symptoms include:1,2
How Do I Know if I Need Medical Intervention?
Typically, the mild to moderate detox side effects from alcohol resolve within 5 to 7 days. More severe symptoms may require medical attention. Physical symptoms can last up to 10 days, whereas psychological symptoms can last much longer.1
The process of experiencing side effects from alcohol detox can be broken down into four stages. These stages include:1
- Stage I: Minor withdrawal symptoms
- Stage II: Alcoholic hallucinosis
- Stage III: Alcohol withdrawal seizures
- Stage IV: Delirium tremens
While minor alcohol withdrawal symptoms may not necessitate medical care, more severe symptoms may require medical detox and supervision.
Stage I: Minor Withdrawal Symptoms
Stage I is seen within 6-8 hours after your last drink. Common side effects during this stage include nausea and vomiting, tremors, and increased heart rate and breathing. You may also begin to experience changes in your mood, such as anxiety and depression. Craving for alcohol is also a common side effect as your body tries to signal to you that it is missing a substance it typically relies on.1
Stage II: Alcoholic Hallucinosis
Stage II typically has an onset within 12-24 hours after your last drink. Common side effects during this stage include illusionary sensations, such as hearing or seeing things others may not see and hear. Additionally, these symptoms include the side effects from Stage I but are more uncomfortable. In addition to the hallucinations, your physical symptoms may have worsened. This could include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. If you start to experience these symptoms, it may be a good indicator medical intervention is necessary.1
Stage III: Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures
Stage III can occur between 24-48 hours after your last drink. In addition to symptoms from Stage I and Stage II, seizures can be common in this stage. If you or someone you know experiences a seizure, call 911 immediately for emergency medical attention.1
Stage IV: Delirium Tremens
Stage IV has an onset within 48-72 hours after your last drink. During this stage, you may have episodes of delirium, extremely high blood pressure, seizures, and coma. Medical attention is absolutely required.1
Given that some of these symptoms can become life-threatening, always consult your primary care provider before starting the alcohol detox process. Your primary care provider can assist with evaluating your risk for alcohol withdrawal and make recommendations. It’s always better to begin alcohol withdrawal in a medical detox setting so that the doctors and nurses can administer medications and provide supervision and monitoring to prevent medical emergencies before they happen. Also, it’s better to already be in a hospital setting in the event your symptoms do progress.
What Medications Would I Be Given During Medical Detox?
When you choose a medical detox program, you receive 24/7 care and supervision, which typically includes alcohol withdrawal medications, such as:1,3
- Anxiolytics, sedatives, or benzodiazepines
- Over-the-counter pain relievers
Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)
Another alcohol detox side effect is post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).5 PAWS is a syndrome that can occur weeks or months after you have stopped using alcohol and have resolved any acute withdrawal symptoms. PAWS is more psychological and emotional than it is physical. Symptoms of PAWS may include:5
- Difficulty with concentration and thinking clearly
- Mood swings
- Sexual dysfunction
What Types of Facilities Are Available?
Multiple levels of care can assist you in managing your alcohol detox symptoms. The availability of each type may vary on your geographic area and client need. The main alcohol detox settings include:6
- Ambulatory detoxification without extended onsite monitoring: This involves visiting with a doctor or healthcare provider, such as going to an office, having your vitals checked, given medication, and being monitored for an amount of time
- Ambulatory detoxification with extended onsite monitoring: This includes going to an outpatient facility for monitoring for the full day, multiple times a week, such as at partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient
- Clinically managed residential detoxification: This would be a home or residential facility whereby you would live for a certain amount of time, and your access to a medical provider is limited
- Medically monitored inpatient detoxification: At this level, you would be inpatient at a facility that likely only specializes in detoxification services and provides more extensive medical care
- Medically managed intensive inpatient detoxification: This level would be utilized in severe cases, in which you need 24/7 medical care and monitoring, such as at a hospital or psychiatric unit
Remember to speak with your primary care physician or substance use disorder specialist who can assess your current side effects of detox and your risk for serious symptomatology.
What Are the Benefits of Alcohol Detox?
Alcohol detox is just the first step of treatment for your alcohol addiction. You will experience many benefits from professional detox, especially when you are committed to maintaining your sobriety. After the detox process, benefits may include:7
- You are less likely to be in an alcohol-related accident
- Your blood pressure lowers
- Your triglycerides decrease
- Your risk of heart failure decreases
- Your liver can work on healing itself
- Your relationships could improve
- Your risk of cancer might decrease
- Your sex life could improve
- You will get better sleep
- You will get sick less often
- You might notice your thoughts are more clear
These benefits are most notable if you maintain sobriety after you complete alcohol detox, and the best way to do that is to transition into an alcohol addiction treatment program. The two main treatment settings are inpatient and outpatient. Inpatient is the most intensive and may provide you the best opportunity to obtain and maintain sobriety, due to its structure and serene environment. A formal alcohol abuse treatment program can help address the underlying factors that influenced your drinking, such as undiagnosed mental health disorders, trauma, external and internal stressors, relationship problems, and more.
- Mirijello, A., D’Angelo, C., Ferrulli, A., Vassallo, G., Antonelli, M., Caputo, F., Leggio, L., Gasbarrini, A., & Addolorato, G. (2015). Identification and management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Drugs, 75(4), 353-365.
- Attilia, F., Perciballi, R., Rotondo, C., Capriglione, I., Iannuzzi, S., Attilia, M. L., Coriale, G., Vitali, M., Cereatti, F., Fiore, M., Ceccanti, M.; Interdisciplinary Study Group CRARL – SITAC – SIPaD – SITD – SIPDip. (2018). Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: diagnostic and therapeutic methods. Rivista di Psichiatria, 53(3), 118-122.
- Schuckit, M. (2015). Management of withdrawal delirium (delirium tremens). The New England Journal of Medicine, 372(6), 2109-2113.
- Egervari, G., Siciliano, C., Whiteley, E., & Ron, D. (2021). Alcohol and the brain: From genes to circuits. Trends In Neurosciences, 44(12), 1004-1015.
- Butehorn, L. (2017). Post–acute withdrawal syndrome, relapse prevention, and homeopathy. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 23(6), 228-230.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Detoxification and substance abuse treatment.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.