If a person struggles with alcohol abuse, in order to return to a productive and healthy life, they need to stop drinking. However, when a person has been drinking alcohol heavily for a long time, this first step can be a challenge; in fact, it can present a serious risk to the person’s life or health due to the potential for serious complications resulting from detox.
This does not mean that the detox process has to be painful for the individual. By working with an experienced, research-based detox program, the person can receive medical support for detox that reduces the risk of life-threatening withdrawal and other problems. This, in turn, makes it more likely that the person can emerge safely from detox and move forward into treatment that helps the person enter and remain in recovery from alcoholism.
Alcohol Abuse and Dependence
Alcoholism or other heavy alcohol abuse takes a toll on the body and brain over time. One major issue is that the body develops tolerance to the substance as well as dependence on it. This means that the brain and body lose the ability to function normally without continued use of alcohol.
As an example, alcohol affects the brain’s natural dopamine system, increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain and causing a pleasurable reaction for the individual. As explained by an article from the New England Journal of Medicine, this contributes to the brain losing its ability to produce dopamine normally over time, without the person drinking alcohol. More systems in the brain are affected by this, but the dopamine system provides a general example of the overall action of alcohol on the brain.
Risks of Alcohol Detox
When a person has any type of physical or mental dependence on a psychoactive substance, stopping use of the substance can result in physical or mental discomfort while the body gets used to functioning without the aid of the substance. This is called withdrawal, as described by WebMD. However, in the case of alcohol use, these withdrawal symptoms can include severe reactions in the brain and body that can potentially be life-threatening.
- Nausea, vomiting, and upset stomach
- Severe tremor
- Mood swings
- Sleep problems
The most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are called delirium tremens (DTs), as described by the US National Library of Medicine, and can result in life-threatening seizures. Avoiding these kinds of symptoms is vital when treating someone for alcoholism.
The Benefits of Inpatient Alcohol Detox
With an inpatient alcohol detox program, the person is admitted to a facility where his or her progress is monitored by medical professionals. A person who is receiving outpatient treatment travels to the facility on a daily basis to check-in with the medical staff. Although outpatient treatment for alcohol dependency is less expensive, there are a few reasons medically-assisted alcohol detox may be the better option.
- Medical Staff on Hand - There is a certain amount of risk involved with ceasing alcohol consumption, particularly if the person has a severe addiction. Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include fatigue, depression, nausea, mood swings, headache, and rapid heartbeat. Severe withdrawals symptoms include agitation, fever, seizures, and hallucinations. On-call medical staff can quickly intervene if the symptoms become life-threatening.
- Closed Environment - Getting away from the sources of alcohol is an important component to successfully achieving sobriety. It is sad, but true, that a person is more likely to relapse back into alcohol addiction if he or she has access to alcohol but have not acquired the skills needed to effectively cope with temptation. Being in a treatment center prevents the person from gaining access to alcohol and improves his or her chances of kicking the addiction.
- Increased Focus on Recovery - The closed environment of the treatment facility also allows the person to focus solely on his or her recovery. A person in an outpatient program still has to deal with the stressors and responsibilities of life, which may prevent or slow down recovery. In a facility, a person has the opportunity to get to the heart of their addiction in a safe, stress-free environment.
If you feel that an inpatient alcohol detox program is best for you or your loved one, call our free national referral hotline for information about available programs.
Medically Assisted Detox
To avoid life-threatening complications, safety is key during alcohol detox and withdrawal. For this reason, quitting alcohol without support can be dangerous. In addition, getting medical support to stop alcohol use can minimize the risk of experiencing these symptoms and improve the person’s chances of completing detox and moving on to alcoholism treatment. There are a number of ways to medically support the process of stopping alcohol abuse.
Put simply, medically assisted detox involves methods of helping the body cope with removing alcohol from the system in a way that reduces the body’s dependence on alcohol over time, and gradually eases the brain and body systems back to functioning on their own without the need for alcohol. This can be achieved through a variety of methods, either alone or in combination, including:
- Medicines to replace alcohol, which can be tapered off over time
- Medicines to counter withdrawal symptoms
- Nutritional and physical exercise support for detox
- Psychological and behavioral counseling
- Supervision by a doctor to manage any emergencies that arise
The Process of Detox with Medical Support
The process of medically assisted detox depends on the individual’s circumstances. For example, a person who has only been abusing alcohol for a short period of time may need only mild intervention, with a few over-the-counter medicines to manage symptoms. On the other hand, a person who has been heavily drinking for many years may need emergency intervention to handle seizures and other symptoms of DTs before a more thorough detox process can be started.
Because the process varies based on the person, the detox process must be individualized. Analysis of the individual’s circumstances is important so the options most likely to result in a smooth detox process can be selected. As such, this is not something that is easy to do without experience. Trying to detox from alcohol alone can lead to the complications above if not enough medical support is provided. Instead, getting assistance from an experienced alcoholism treatment professional is more likely to result in the person completing the detox process and moving forward into treatment and recovery. Some of the options that may be included in the process are described below.
Options for Medically Assisted Detox from Alcohol
There are a number of medical options designed to prevent severe withdrawal syndrome in the case of alcohol detox.
- Benzodiazepines: As explained by the Industrial Psychiatry Journal, these substances, which include common medications like Valium (diazepam) and Ativan (lorazepam), are the medications most often used to “replace” the person’s alcohol intake during detox. They have a similar effect on the brain and body, but unlike alcohol itself, they provide an opportunity to safely and reliably taper dosage to ease the body’s reaction to loss of the substance.
- Barbiturates: These substances act similarly to benzodiazepines; however, they are more problematic because overdose can occur at low doses and response to these medications can be unpredictable.
- Other supportive medications: Substances such as gabapentin can help to correct some of the imbalanced brain chemistry that occurs during alcohol withdrawal, helping to ease symptoms. Over-the-counter medications, such as Tylenol or Pepto-Bismol, can also help with some milder symptoms.
- Vitamins and supplements: Vitamins and other supplements are a necessary component of alcohol detox treatment, as heavy alcohol use depletes a number of the body’s nutrients, potentially damaging the brain if those nutrients aren’t replaced. One example of this is shown in an article from the American Journal of Physiology – Renal Physiology, which discusses thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency caused by alcohol use.
- Therapy: Detox alone does not help a person stop abusing alcohol. Therapies that help the individual learn to manage cravings and triggers can prevent relapse during the detox process.
From Detox to Treatment
A challenge that can arise from these treatments is that some of the above substances are also addictive, raising concern that the individual will simply shift the object of addiction from alcohol to something else. In particular, benzodiazepines and barbiturates are extremely addictive and can be dangerous in their own right. For this reason, detox from alcohol using medications should never be undertaken without the guidance of an addiction treatment doctor or other experienced medical professional.
Along with this, it is important for the individual not to stop treatment after the detox process is over. As explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction such as alcoholism is a chronic brain disease that calls for consistent treatment, with the main goal of avoiding relapse. To avoid relapse, addiction treatment should provide tools, skills, support, and resources to help the individual learn to manage cravings without returning to alcohol use and abuse. Research demonstrates that the treatments most likely to help the individual avoid relapse include behavioral therapy and peer support, along with family therapy, motivational tools, and education. Medically supported detox is only the first step in this process.
Getting Medical Detox Support
Based on the information above, it is important for the individual seeking to stop alcohol abuse to get professional, experienced support for alcohol detox. Often, a reliable way to find this level of support is to work with a certified and research-based addiction treatment facility. The specialists in these facilities can guide the individual through the process and customize a plan for treatment, from detox through follow-up support, that will give the person the best opportunity to achieve recovery and avoid relapse in the future.