No psychoactive chemical substance is more common in the United States than alcohol. It’s among the only federally legal recreational drugs along with tobacco and caffeine. It’s widely advertised and sold on every street corner to the point that it’s almost impossible not to experience alcohol marketing daily. However, alcohol’s ubiquity doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous than other illicit or prescription drugs.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a problem in the U.S., marked by alcohol abuse, dependence, and addiction. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), there were more than 15 million adults in the U.S. with an alcohol use disorder, accounting for 6.2 percent. Alcohol has the potential to be powerfully addictive and cause a chemical dependency that is difficult to overcome on your own.
In fact, it may even be dangerous to attempt quitting alcohol use cold-turkey without help from a medical professional. Alcohol, like another central nervous system (CNS) depressants, can cause potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms, especially if you stop using abruptly. However, not addressing an alcohol use disorder can be dangerous in and of itself. Alcohol abuse has been linked to many life-threatening diseases, increased risk of being exposed to violent crimes, and an increased risk of being in a fatal accident.
It’s important to seek help when you are looking to stop using alcohol and achieve sobriety. A medical detox program is an excellent option for achieving sobriety as safely and comfortably as possible. Learn how medical detox works, what withdrawal symptoms you have to expect, and how to safeguard your sobriety after detox is complete.
How Alcohol Works in the Brain
Alcohol maybe a legal substance that’s sold and advertised all over the country, but it is a drug with significant addiction potential all the same. Before understanding the detox process and what it takes to rid your system of alcohol dependence, it’s important to understand how alcohol works in the brain and what causes chemical dependence.
Alcohol first reaches the brain when you drink more than your liver can filter out. Typically, this is more than one drink in two hours, depending on your size, sex, and your definition of the word “drink.” When alcohol reaches the brain, it starts to alter your nervous system’s method of communication. As a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, alcohol slows down your nervous system by binding to GABA-TK receptors and making the GABA neurotransmitter more efficient. This results in feelings of relaxation, sedation, anti-anxiety, and euphoria.
Dependence is when your brain has come to rely on alcohol to maintain normal brain chemistry. This is when you’ve built up a substance use disorder that is now grown to dangerous levels. Your brain is working overtime to produce chemicals to counteract alcohol to maintain some semblance of balanced brain chemistry.
If you suddenly stop consuming alcohol, your brain’s foreign supply of nervous system suppressing chemicals will have suddenly run dry.
The counteracting excitatory effects will no longer be bridled by alcohol, which results in an overactive nervous system and dangerous adverse reactions.
If alcohol use continues, even after negative consequences have come from excessive drinking, your SUD may have reached the limbic system.
As a major part of the reward center of your brain, the limbic system is responsible for recognizing healthy activities and teaching your brain to repeat them.
Psychoactive drugs like alcohol can trick the reward center into believing that the desired, euphoric effects of alcohol are actually one of the life-sustaining activities it’s supposed to recognize.
When your limbic system teaches your learning center to treat alcohol as an activity to be desired, you will start to crave alcohol in times of stress even after detox. This is when a substance use disorder becomes an addiction.
Drinking That Leads To a Substance Use Disorder
Alcohol and drinking culture is all over the country and the world, and it’s been that way for thousands of years. People have consumed fermented or distilled plant matter for almost as long as there have been people. Though alcohol use disorders and alcoholism are fairly common, not everyone who drinks develops an alcohol-related disorder. So what kind of drinking becomes a problem that requires medical detox and addiction treatment? Here are a few common drinking scenarios that might be risky:
Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in two hours. Binge drinking is common among younger people, with people in their late teens and 20s making up the largest binging demographic. Overall, 26 percent of adults in the United States reported binge drinking within the last month in 2015.
Binge drinking can lead to several dangerous complications including:
- Increased risk of accident/trip and fall
- Increased risk of fatal auto accident
- Risk of alcohol poisoning
- Slows brain development (in people under 25)
- Can lead to a variety of chronic diseases (cancer, heart disease)
Alcohol-related deaths accounted for around 88,000 deaths in the U.S. alone and, in 2014, 9,967 of those were fatal car accidents. Not all binging leads to chemical dependence or addiction, but if you continue binging regularly, for a long enough period of time, drinking can have long-lasting consequences.
Studies show that excessive drinking can be dangerous for brains that are still in developmental stages. Until the age of 25, your ability to process information grows through a period called myelination. Alcohol can stunt this process, permanently hindering your cognitive function to some degree.
If you have other addiction risk factors, or if you regularly binge drink long enough, you may develop chemical dependence or addiction. TK If you have a family history of alcoholism or a personal history with an addiction of any kind, you should avoid binging.
One of the common signs of an alcohol use disorder is regularly drinking alone. Isolation and lying about alcohol use can also further your perceived need to hide alcohol use. People struggling with alcoholism often hide alcohol around their homes or workplace to use in secret.
Drinking may start as a recreational activity but, for some, it can turn into a way to self-medicate for negative emotions, memories, or mental disorders.
According to a 2014 national survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 7.9 million people struggle with both a substance use disorder (SUD) and a mental illness.
Alcohol and depression are often closely related. Alcohol is a CNS depressant with anti-anxiety effects. It can cause people to forget about their stressors and anxieties for a short time.
However, as a depressant, it will ultimately make depression symptoms worse.
Drinking in the morning is not only a type of unhealthy drinking, it’s a sign that drinking has already become an AUD. Alcohol has a duration of action that lasts between 6 and 16 hours. Typically, the higher your tolerance the fast you will processes alcohol. That means if you’ve developed a chemical dependence, if you drink at night you might start to feel withdrawal symptoms in the morning. If you feel the need to drink to start the day, you may be chemically dependent.
Drinking Despite Consequences
If you continue to regularly drink despite experiencing negative consequences related to drinking, it could be an earmark of addiction. When an AUD becomes an addiction, your brain’s reward center will essentially teach you to crave alcohol like any other life-sustaining activity, like eating a warm meal. If you’ve experienced problems at work, health complications, DUIs, or family issues because of alcohol and you continue to drink, you may be experiencing an addiction.
What Is Alcohol Detox?
Alcohol detox is a process of ridding your body of the presence and need for alcohol. It also rests your brain chemistry and gives it time to return to normal after a period of alcohol use. Movies and television often show withdrawal symptoms as lasting one rough night of symptoms. In reality, it takes time for your brain to correct its neurochemical levels after a period of alcohol use.
The most dangerous symptoms of withdrawal are seizures and Delirium tremens. Both are significantly life-threatening outside of medical treatment. Seizures can come on suddenly, causing violent convulsions.
This can cause injuries and a spike in blood pressure and heart rate that can be dangerous to some people. Delirium tremens can cause catatonia, seizures, confusion, coma, and even death without treatment. With medical attention, your risk of experiencing deadly symptoms is significantly reduced.
Detox doesn’t only involve treating your system. Clinical teams will also work with you to determine the best treatment options for your needs. Addiction treatment doesn’t end when you complete detox. Most people need continued treatment to effectively address the disease of addiction. In a detox program, clinicians can help determine the best options for your continued treatment.
The safest way to go through withdrawal symptoms is through medical detoxification or medically managed treatment. According to the continuum of care model of addiction treatment, Medical detox is the highest level of care and involves 24-7 medical treatment from medical professionals. Through detox, you may be prescribed medications to alleviate symptoms of withdrawal like nausea, tremors, anxiety, depression, hallucinations, insomnia, and blood pressure, and heart rate changes.
In detox, your medical team will assess both your physical and mental health and learn more about your drinking history. They may give you medication to help you sleep, alleviate uncomfortable symptoms, and work to avoid serious symptoms of withdrawal.
What Are the Alcohol Detox Symptoms?
Alcohol is a unique recreational drug. Unlike other addictive substances, alcohol affects your nervous system in a way that can actually have physically dangerous symptoms in withdrawal. Even opioids and cocaine typically only cause mild to extreme discomfort without being life-threatening.
However, the nature of alcohol dependence is such that your nervous system becomes overactive in withdrawal. Depending on the level of tolerance and dependence you have reached, when you stop using alcohol, neurochemicals in your brain will become widely unbalanced.
Alcohol suppresses your nervous system and your brain will try to balance out this suppression with its own natural excitatory chemicals. However, when you suddenly stop using your nervous system will be over-excited until it has time to balance out again. An overactive nervous system can have several different adverse effects and can vary in severity.
The severity of the withdrawal symptoms you experience depends on your personal history with alcohol and how abruptly you stop using. If you have recently noticed a chemical dependency forming and stopped using with medical assistance, you may only experience mild symptoms.
However, if you’ve been struggling with alcoholism for years and you abruptly quit cold turkey, you’re more likely to experience some of the more severe symptoms. Your nervous system controls the vast majority of your body’s functions from cognizant functions like muscle movement to automatic functions like breathing and heart rates. The more severe your symptoms, the more likely they are to have a dangerous impact on one of the more crucial functions.
- Mood swings
Moderate symptoms are where the autonomic nervous system starts to be affected and you may start to see problems involving an increase in automatic functions. Moderate symptoms can include any of the mild symptoms plus:
- Increased blood pressure
- Body temperature
- Fast breathing/ hyperventilating
- Irregular heartbeat
- Mood disturbances
In severe cases of withdrawal, you may experience the phenomenon of Delirium tremens and extreme nervous system activity. Severe withdrawal can include any of the above symptoms and the following:
- Extreme confusion
Many of these symptoms can be life-threatening if they persist without treatment. If you or a loved one starts to feel alcohol withdrawal symptoms, it’s important to call a doctor immediately.
How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?
The acute alcohol withdrawal phase can be difficult to get through, especially if you try to go through it on your own. It’s best to take it on with professional help. But even with medical treatment, it’s a challenge. But how long is the alcohol withdrawal timeline?
The symptoms you experience and the alcohol detox timeline on which you experience them can deeply vary from person to person.
However, there are a few factors that can influence the length of time your withdrawal lasts and how fast it comes on, including The amount of time you have been drinking The amount of alcohol you consumed each time you drank How long ago you last had a drink How much you consumed when you last drank Your medical history
Generally speaking, you will start to feel withdrawal symptoms for the first time eight hours after you last had a drink. At this point, you may only feel mild symptoms. However, symptoms will peak at between 24 and 72 hours where you may experience more severe symptoms. Symptoms will start to subside after five days and after a full week, most symptoms will be gone. However, some side effects can persist for longer without treatment.
Alcohol Detox FAQ
If you believe you or a loved one may be facing alcohol dependence and detox, you may have several questions about the alcohol detox process and alcohol detox symptoms. Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about alcohol detox and withdrawal:
How Dangerous Is Detoxing from Alcohol?
The risk involved in detoxing from alcohol depends on how severe your substance use problem is. If you’ve been dependent on alcohol for a long time, you are more likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms. If you’ve only been drinking consistently for a few weeks, you may not experience severe life-threatening withdrawal. Although you could, if you drank heavily. Months or years of alcohol dependence will likely cause severe withdrawal when you quit.
Quitting cold turkey also increases the danger of alcohol withdrawal. Suddenly quitting after a period of consistent drinking may shock your nervous system, leading to severe overstimulation. Finally, alcohol withdrawal can be more dangerous if you’ve gone through withdrawal from a depressant before. Depressant withdrawal can cause permanent changes in your brain that worsen subsequent withdrawal periods.
Can You Go Through Alcohol Detox At Home?
If you meet with your doctor, they may tell you that you can detox at home safely. If you have a mild alcohol use problem, you may be able to taper at home. You may be prescribed a medication like a benzodiazepine to help you taper off alcohol. However, if you have become addicted to alcohol or if you have severe alcohol dependence, going through detox at home may be dangerous or ineffective. Trying to quit alcohol at home if you are addicted to alcohol can be difficult, and it’s likely to result in relapse or continued drinking. Going through detox at home with a severe substance use disorder is also more dangerous. It’s best to check with your doctor before quitting cold turkey. If they advise you to undergo medical detox, it’s likely worth it.
Can You Speed Up the Alcohol Detox Timeline?
Alcohol detox can take a week to 10 days with post-acute withdrawal symptoms that can last for a few more weeks. However, rapid detox is an option. It’s a relatively new form of detox that uses a medication called naloxone to jump-start the detox process. It’s mostly associated with alcohol detox because naloxone displaces opioids that bind to opioid receptors, immediately sending someone who has been taking opioids into withdrawal. However, alcohol also affects opioid receptors and natural opioids called endorphins, so naloxone may be effective with alcohol withdrawal. However, rapid alcohol withdrawal is also associated with more intense withdrawal symptoms, which require close medically managed services.
Can Alcohol Detox Kill You?
Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal in severe cases. However, medical alcohol detox significantly decreases your risk of fatal withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms include seizures, heart palpitations, and fever. While alcohol withdrawal can be serious, it can be avoided or treated with medical intervention. It’s rare for someone to die in medical detox with trained medical professionals managing their care. However, if care is administered too late or if you don’t go through medical treatment, alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous.
Starting the Road To Recovery
Despite its legality, alcohol addiction can be extremely serious and can have a serious impact on your physical and mental health, family, career, finances, and many other aspects of your life. Plus, without medical detoxification, alcohol withdrawal can be extremely dangerous. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcoholism or alcohol dependence, it’s advised that you seek medical assistance as soon as possible to avoid dangerous repercussions.
Addiction is a complex and chronic disease that can be caused by a variety of factors and can affect people in different ways. However, it can be treated through the full continuum of addiction treatment, behavioral therapies, and medication. The road to recovery often starts with detox but it isn’t the end of addiction treatment.
Studies show that the most effective therapy lasts for up to 90 days, in which you will get to the root of your addiction and develop relapse prevention strategies to help safeguard your recovery for years to come.