What is the alcohol detox experience like?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is inconclusive: it depends.

Detox is the initial abrupt change of stopping alcohol intake altogether. Its purpose is to cleanse the body of all remnants of alcohol, which is a process that typically lasts from 7 to 10 days. The patient's symptoms also tend to vary considerably based on the frequency and length of time the person has been drinking.

Mild symptoms include headaches and nausea, while patients with severe cases may experience delirium tremens, which cause the person to suffer seizures and/or hallucinations. Interestingly, the length of the detox process isn't dependent on the severity of the symptoms.

Alcohol cessation disrupts two of the brain's neurotransmitters, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and glutamate. These chemicals are responsible for the feelings of relaxation and well-being that are part of the initial alcohol intake experience. Chronic consumption of alcohol, however, will suppress GABA activity, requiring the drinker to consume more of the substance in order to attain the positive feelings he or she once enjoyed. Chronic consumption also decreases glutamate activity, which is responsible for producing excitability. As the glutamate system tries to level off and find equilibrium, it responds to the regular doses of alcohol by functioning at very high levels.

When an alcoholic stops drinking completely or reduces intake substantially, the neurotransmitters once suppressed by alcohol are set free. This freedom results in a phenomenon called brain hyperexcitability. In effect, the person experiences withdrawal symptoms that include anxiety, irritability, agitation, tremors, seizures and delirium tremens—all of which are the opposite of alcohol's initial calm and relaxing effect.

This is why alcoholics of all levels of consumption must detox under medical supervision. Alcohol detox professionals can monitor and react to the patient's symptoms throughout the potentially dangerous withdrawal period. They administer appropriate medications and other therapies to make the detox experience as comfortable as possible, giving the recovery alcoholic much-needed reassurance.

The presence of a drinking problem can be determined by the CAGE questionnaire, a four-item screening test that helps identify alcohol abuse or alcoholism. This questionnaire takes one minute to administer to most people and include the following questions:

1. Have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?
2. Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
3. Have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?
4. Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover (Eye opener)?

Responding "yes" to the eye-opener question alone can be used by clinicians as a positive to the questionnaire. Although, two or more affirmative responses can also suggest that one is a problem drinker and may require medical assistance to address the issue.

Abimbola Farinde, Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor
Private Practice

Alcohol detox is known to be one of the most dangerous processes in recovery and should never be done alone. When a person suddenly stops drinking alcohol, the consequences can cause hallucinations, convulsions and even heart seizure that may result in death. During professional alcohol detox, medications may be prescribed that can make the detox more comfortable and safer for the individual. Such medications help reduce or eliminate cravings, ease anxiety and help the individual transition more gently from an abrupt cessation from drinking. Medications require constant monitoring by a qualified medical staff who can ensure the comfort and safety of the detox process. Alcohol detox can be done in a residential treatment facility or a hospital-based medical program. Newer approaches in today’s treatment industry also include concierge nursing, which provides in-home, medically supervised detox.

Outreach Representative, Summit Estate Recovery Center

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-772-8219 to to start the path to recovery today.

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