Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms and Drug Detox

One of the very first steps on the road to recovery is detoxing the body from whatever substance(s) to which a person has become addicted. Undergoing drug and alcohol detox means eliminating the toxins present in the body as a result of substance abuse.

It's important to understand that drug and alcohol detox can lead to symptoms of withdrawal, and that depending on the situation, withdrawal from certain substances can be fatal. This is part of why it's important to seek out professional substance abuse treatment when recovering from drug or alcohol addiction.

Alcohol Withdrawal and Drug Detox

Drug and alcohol rehab centers are equipped for medical detox, and well prepared to help patients control withdrawal symptoms. Their goal is to keep patients safe, and as comfortable as possible as they undergo the drug or alcohol detox process.

What is drug or alcohol withdrawal?

Withdrawal happens when a person abruptly stops a habit. This could be something you consumed or an activity you regularly enjoyed. In this case, it's what happens when you suddenly stop taking drugs or alcohol (go cold turkey).

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence lists general drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms as:

  • Shakiness
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite or digestion problems
  • Insomnia and other sleep problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression and irritability

In addition to this, alcohol withdrawal can lead to delirium tremens (DTs). DTs is a severe form of withdrawal that can happen when a person stops drinking after a period of heavy alcohol consumption, especially if they haven't had enough food. It is associated with extreme symptoms such as body tremors, confusion/disorientation, hallucinations, stupor, sensitivity to light/noise/sound, seizures, and death.

DTs is most common in those who already have a history of alcohol withdrawal, and particularly frequent in those who drink daily and who've used alcohol for over 10 years. DTs affects roughly 5% of heavy drinkers who go through alcohol detox. Alcohol rehab facilities are well equipped to deal with incidents of DTs.

Why does withdrawal happen?

In the case of alcohol withdrawal, those who suffer from long-term alcohol abuse become physically dependent on it. Their bodies adjust to the very regular presence of high levels of alcohol, and enter a rhythm to accommodate the volume and impact of that alcohol intake. Other patterns of drug addiction are similar.

When an alcoholic stops drinking suddenly (or dramatically reduces how much alcohol they're taking in), the body's adjustments now backfire. The brain and nervous system have made neuronal adaptations to alcohol such that they now need it to function normally.

Sudden alcohol detox throws the body into emergency mode, and it tries to stabilize itself by doing things like releasing chemicals such as glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABAA). The release of neurotransmitters like these is one of the things that can send people into withdrawal.

How is withdrawal treated?

Withdrawal from certain substances, including alcohol, opiates (codeine, Vicodin, morphine, OxyContin, Percoset), and benzodiazepines, or benzos (Xanax, Valium, Ativan), brings increased risks. The risks associated with detox also go up when someone has been addicted to more than one substance at a time (for example, alcohol and codeine). Withdrawal symptoms from one substance cause complications with those from another, which can increase the risk of those symptoms causing death.

When heavy, long-term alcoholics stop drinking, the first signs of withdrawal can appear in as few as 2 hours. Symptoms usually start to peak within 12 to 48 hours, as the recovering alcoholic's body starts to cycle through chemical adjustments. It's therefore important to get help as soon as possible.

Treatment options vary widely. With alcohol detox, some doctors administer a controlled dosage of anti-anxiety medicine to aid in the mental strain of withdrawal. The focus is always on keeping the patient safe, and mitigating the discomfort of the physical and psychological effects of withdrawal. Patients usually starts to stabilize after 3 days to a week, which is when further recovery treatment should begin.

How do you go through withdrawal safely?

The fact is, while the dangers associated with detox and withdrawal are real, most substance abuse withdrawal symptoms are not deadly - they're just extremely uncomfortable. However, they can be very scary to experience or witness, and it's important to get the right support during this part of the process.

If you or your loved one has been a heavy user of drugs or alcohol, do not attempt to quit cold turkey or try a rapid detox at home. Instead, consider an inpatient drug rehab program with a medical detox component.

This type of treatment is most likely to help those seeking to overcome their addictions avoid the dangers of withdrawal, and set themselves up for success. Inpatient programs often provide not only immediate medical support to aid in successfully navigating detox and withdrawal, but also therapy and tools to help prevent relapse.

Particularly if there is a dual diagnosis involved, inpatient treatment is the best way to manage symptoms, avoid complications, and get the person back to health.

With compassionate care, safe facilities, and a controlled detox, those seeking help can successfully handle the withdrawal process and look forward to a new, abuse-free life and future.

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