Alcohol Detox – What to Expect on the Hard Road to Recovery

Man in alcohol detox

Treatment for alcohol dependence or alcoholism typically begins with detoxification, also known as alcohol detox, which is the complete cessation of alcohol consumption.

Alcohol has consistently remained to be the most abused substance throughout history. Alcohol abuse, on varying levels of severity on the alcohol use disorder spectrum, affects around 10 percent of women and 20 percent of men in the United States.

Even though an estimated 17.6 million Americans are currently battling alcohol use disorder (AUD), only a fraction of this population, which is just 16 percent, seeks professional help. [1]

What patients need to be well aware of before entering a detox program is that this is just the first step toward recovery.

Despite the ensuing discomfort from withdrawals that are characteristic of a detox, especially in cases of extreme addiction, detox is a complicated and necessary first step toward recovery.

Alcohol Detox

Alcohol detox, the abrupt cessation of alcohol intake, is conducted under medical supervision, either as an inpatient or outpatient setting. The detox may be handled at an alcohol treatment center or a hospital.

Certain medications are also incorporated into detox, designed particularly for the management of uncomfortable and painful symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

Alcohol detoxification typically lasts for a period of five to seven days after the alcoholic has entirely stopped drinking. This stage is marked by the presence of most severe withdrawal symptoms that need to be dealt with medically.

Alcohol detoxification can be deadly if done without any medical care or professional supervision.

Mainly, alcohol detox aims to minimize the withdrawal symptoms. The detox is done through several medications, mainly benzodiazepines.

Middle-age woman outsideBenzodiazepines help calm and sedate the alcoholic and the central nervous system by reducing the effect of many alcohol detox symptoms.

Other medications often used during alcohol detoxification include chlordiazepoxide, Lorazepam, and Oxazepam. [2]

Detoxification, being just the initial step, is necessary to allow the body to cleanse itself of all traces of alcohol. Even though rehab normally lasts a week, rehab programs, however, usually last 30 to 45 days.

Some patients may even benefit from a longer program, lasting for 60 to 90 days at a residential or inpatient treatment center. The duration of treatment is determined based largely on the following factors:

  • The specification and severity of addiction
  • Prior history of substance abuse
  • Co-occurring medical, mental or behavioral health conditions
  • The patient’s individual physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual requirements.

Withdrawal Symptoms from Alcohol Cessation

Various factors determine the duration and severity of withdrawals such as the duration of alcohol misuse, amount of intake, tolerance, the severity of abuse, intensity of withdrawal, and other individual factors like personality, social support, and the environment.

Possible withdrawal symptoms from alcohol detox are listed below:

  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Anger or irritability
  • Varying levels of anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hypertension which is, high blood pressure
  • Confusion due to psychological symptoms such as memory constraints and poor concentration
  • Extreme cravings
  • Emotional breakdowns, crying spells, and depression
  • Delirium and hallucinations
  • Dilated pupils
  • Dizziness and grogginess
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Insomnia
  • Itching
  • Muscle weakness and joint pains
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nightmares and panic attacks
  • Tremors and excessive sweating
  • Seizures
  • Suicidal thoughts

Each patient is different and may experience varying levels and combinations of these symptoms.

In the absence of co-occurring conditions or other drug use, alcohol withdrawal follows a typical course consisting of three relatively distinct phases as discussed below:

Acute withdrawal: This period is essentially characterized by tremors, autonomic nervous system hyperactivity, physiological symptoms like increased heart rate and blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems and the risk of seizures. Seizures and tremors typically occur within the first 48 hours following discontinued consumption and peak around 24 hours.

Early abstinence: This second phase brings upon anxiety, mood disorientation, and disturbed sleep patterns continue, but acute physical symptoms wean off. High anxiety levels dissolve within three to six weeks into detox.

Protracted abstinence: This final phase is devoid of any obvious anxiety and dysphoria, yet the adjustment period can contain seemingly normal elements to act as triggers for craving of alcohol and relapse. [3]

Man struggling with alcoholStaying Sober and Preventing Relapses

Completion of detox in no way signifies an end to the treatment. The treatment is, in fact, just beginning. The patient is still at high risk of relapse as the adjustment period is full of hidden triggers and shortcomings.

Hence, it is highly recommended to enter a treatment program right away where the patient will undergo therapy and learn useful coping skills to deal with future triggers and adjust back into their normal lives.

Detox itself may raise the risk of fatality from overdose if the patient fails to transition to a substance abuse treatment program after discharge.

Sana Ahmed photoAbout the Author:

A journalist and social media savvy content writer with wide research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana Ahmed has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute focusing on mental health and addiction recovery, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. The art of using words to educate, stir emotions, create change and provoke action is at the core of her career, as she strives to develop content and deliver news that matters.



The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on September 15, 2017
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 15, 2017.
Published on

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.