Demystifying Alcohol Detox: Answers to Common Questions

September 7, 2023

6 mins

Jackie Rosu


Alcohol abuse disorder adversely changes the body and brain. Long-term exposure to alcohol causes the body to struggle to function without it.

Alcohol abuse disorder adversely changes the body and brain. Long-term exposure to alcohol causes the body to struggle to function without it. When someone suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) decides to begin the journey to sobriety, there are two options to reduce alcohol dependence: 

  1. Wean themselves off the substance and reduce intake over time. 
  2. Go “cold turkey” and cut themselves off entirely from alcohol.

With weaning, the patient drinks less and less with a careful, controlled plan. A patient who goes cold turkey stops outright. They plan and intend never to have another drink again. 

While the cold turkey approach can be effective, this radical and sudden change in the body’s chemical environment has side effects. A proper plan ensures the patient has help and the necessary support as they work through their symptoms. 

A medical detox environment provides that support. Anyone considering this treatment will have questions about alcohol detox that must be answered before they commit to treatment. It’s not an easy decision. Information about how it works, how it benefits the patient, and what to expect are all common alcohol detox questions. 

What is Alcohol Detox? 

In detox, the body flushes alcohol from its system. The brain starts to independently produce chemicals it previously relied on alcohol to provide, returning heightened production of other substances to normal. As the process ends, the body returns to a healthy “homeostasis,” or biological balance, without alcohol. 

Alcohol detox also refers to the facilities, resources, and support network that help make this process happen. The symptoms can be painful, uncomfortable, or even dangerous. As a result, many people feel tempted to drink to alleviate the side effects. Professional detox facilities have trained medical staff onsite to treat the worst symptoms and provide medications to ease the process. With their help, patients who would otherwise return to drinking can have help pushing through the symptoms and successfully completing the detox process. 

Inpatient facilities that treat patients on-site work to physically keep them away from alcohol as part of treatment. No matter how strong those cravings become, addicts can’t satisfy them without access to alcohol. Detox interferes with the body’s reliance on and works to end its dependence on alcohol, no matter how desperate it becomes. 

How Much Time Does Alcohol Detox Take? 

The worst detox symptoms typically end within 72 hours. In rare cases, patients experience more prolonged withdrawal symptoms, such as fatigue or mood changes, lasting several months

Why Should I Go To Professional Detox? 

Anyone can quit cold turkey in their home. Family and friends can provide support and assistance, and it costs nothing. 

For some, this approach works. For others with more severe alcoholism, the symptoms can have life-threatening consequences. Detox often includes temporary mental health symptoms like anxiety and insomnia. Poor decision-making and actions in this altered state can have permanent and damaging consequences.

Dealing With Detox Symptoms 

Everyone experiences addiction differently. Withdrawal is no exception. Some people have mild symptoms, while others suffer throughout the process and require medical attention. 

Professional detox helps treat these symptoms, which can intensify the longer the body goes without a drink.

Early Symptoms 

As early as 6 hours after the patient’s last drink, they start to experience mild but sometimes debilitating symptoms, which include: 

  • Anxiety 
  • Hand tremors 
  • Headache 
  • Vomiting 
  • Insomnia (difficulty sleeping) 
  • Sweating
  • Nausea 

People addicted to other legal substances are often familiar with these symptoms. An office worker may have a headache until they get their morning coffee, or a smoker feels anxious when they go too long without a cigarette. When someone enters the first stage of detox in their day-to-day life, they may reach for a drink to feel normal—the same normal that a healthy person experiences every day. 

Severe Symptoms 

More severe symptoms begin at the second stage of detox. It starts 12 hours after the patient’s last drink and lasts 48 hours. 


Hallucinations come in many variations, but all alter the senses. With alcohol detox, people who hallucinate remain aware of their surroundings. They stay awake while they see, hear, and otherwise experience things that do not exist

Hallucinations and how they manifest differ dramatically from person to person. 

What is Delirium Tremens? 

Many discussions about detox cover delirium tremens (DT). About five percent of detox patients experience this rare but severe syndrome, lasting 48-72 hours after the patient’s last drink.

Patients who have delirium tremens often experience one or more of the following symptoms: 

  • Agitation, aggression, or confusion
  • Chest pain as heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • Easily startled or angered
  • Hyperactivity
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nightmares
  • Seizures
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Sweating

The sudden and significant acceleration in the patient’s body temperature, breathing, and blood circulation can intensify adverse side effects. When combined with other symptoms, delirium tremens can do permanent damage or even kill.

Delirium tremens is a result of alcohol abuse. Alcohol is a depressant. Depressants slow the brain and body capacity and limit, or “depress,” their normal functions. The body compensates by producing more stimulant chemicals to allow the body to catch up to its regular rate of function. 

Because detox flushes alcohol from the body before it can adjust its chemical production, the body ends up with more neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemicals than it needs. With more “fuel” than necessary and no alcohol to hold it back, the body kicks into overdrive. The patient’s body has more energy than it needs and no healthy outlet for it. 

Delirium tremens and its risks are a major motivator for patients to seek professional detox. Medical staff can monitor and treat the symptoms and keep the patient safe and stable while their body returns to normal. 

Depression and Suicidal Thoughts 

Withdrawal worsens the already intense depression that many AUD patients face. Detox can protect patients with a heightened risk of self-harm and suicide with careful supervision from trained and sympathetic professionals. 

Why Is 72 Hours Important In Alcohol Detox? 

The worst symptoms usually pass after 72 hours. For at-home detox, the process ends at the 72-hour mark. While professional medical detox also takes 72 hours, inpatient facilities can direct patients to additional resources. Those resources include therapists and counselors specializing in long-term addiction treatments and support groups to help hold the patient accountable. 

The end of detox represents the first step in a longer journey. The psychological demands of sobriety and the battle against cravings is a lifelong endeavor where these resources can make a difference in sustaining sobriety. 

Can Alcohol Detox Happen At Home? 

Yes. Detox happens in two ways: inpatient and outpatient. In contrast to the at-home go-it-alone detox described earlier, both provide medical attention and valuable resources.

And both can be successful! Patients and their loved ones should consider their current needs and choose a program that best suits them. 

Why Does Inpatient Detox Matter? 

Inpatient detox provides round-the-clock, 24-hour care that treats the worst symptoms and side effects of alcohol withdrawal. While more costly, this care is critical for severe cases.

When Is Outpatient Detox Appropriate?

In outpatient detox, the patient travels to the detox office daily for treatment but spends their nights at their home. This method costs much less and gives the patient greater autonomy.

Outpatient works well for patients with limited budgets or less severe symptoms that don’t require constant care. 

What Medications Are Prescribed At Alcohol Detox? 

Rehab facilities frequently use prescribed medications to ease the intense detox process. These medications help the brain adjust to the sudden change in its chemical environment. As a result, the brain eases, the body recalibrates, and the substances the body once relied on are no longer necessary.


Benzodiazepines are a detox treatment mainstay. The brain races as alcohol leaves its systems. “Benzos” slow the brain down while the body recovers. These drugs treat seizures, and help mitigate the other effects of delirium tremens. Outside alcohol detox, they are tightly regulated. When abused, benzodiazepines are also addictive and are only safe in a controlled medical environment like detox. 


Naltrexone blocks specific neurotransmitter receptors in the brain that cause psychological alcohol cravings. With a reduced desire for alcohol, people with AUD can work to overcome their detox symptoms and persevere rather than have a drink. 

How Can I Find Treatment That Works for Me? 

Thousands of alcohol detox facilities exist across the country. If you or a loved one needs to find a rehab clinic, Never Alone Recovery can help you find one that is right for you. 

Our network allows patients to review and compare rehab programs anywhere in the country. We work to coordinate travel arrangements for patients to help them move toward taking the first step to detox and, eventually, recovery. Join our mailing list to learn more about our programs, releases, and additional resources. 

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