Medical Alcohol Detox

Detoxification, also known simply as detox, is a process in which an alcohol user stops drinking and allows the body to eliminate all of the alcohol. Detox is a necessary first step for getting sober, but it can cause serious, uncomfortable and painful withdrawal symptoms. The fear of experiencing alcohol withdrawal prevents many people from taking this important step.

It is possible to detox without any assistance, but in addition to being uncomfortable, it can also be dangerous, especially if there are any other medical issues or conditions present. Medical alcohol detox is a way to make this process easier and safer. It involves the administration of treatment, like medications, by a health care professional while the patient detoxes.

Alcohol Withdrawal

If you drink regularly and stop to detox, you are likely to experience alcohol withdrawal. The severity of symptoms depends on how much you have been drinking and for how long. Symptoms can also be exacerbated by any other medical conditions you have. They usually set in around eight hours after the last consumption of alcohol and persist for one to three days. In some cases withdrawal may go on for weeks. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Irritability
  • Shaking
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Clouded thinking
  • Mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate

It is also possible during detox to develop delirium tremens, a more severe type of alcohol withdrawal. It is characterized by tremors, feeling agitated and confused, fever, seizures and hallucinations. It is especially important to treat this type of withdrawal medically because it increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Medical Detox to Treat Alcohol Withdrawal

Medical detox is essentially treatment for alcohol withdrawal and includes monitoring of vital signs, intravenous fluids, and medications. It may also include treating other medical conditions that are affected by or that affect withdrawal symptoms. The goals of treatment are to reduce symptoms and to prevent any complications. Medical detox can be administered on an outpatient basis, but inpatient treatment and 24-hour monitoring is best for severe cases of withdrawal.

For mild cases of alcohol withdrawal, medical detox may simply involve supportive care with no medications. This means providing the patient with a setting that is quiet and comfortable, the necessary food and fluids for good nutrition and hydration, and occasional monitoring of vital signs along with encouragement and reassurance.

Most medical detox programs include medications for patients with moderate to severe withdrawal in addition to supportive care. Even those with mild withdrawal can benefit from and may receive medications. Some of the types of drugs used in medical detox include:

  • Benzodiazepines. These are sedatives and are prescribed to treat insomnia, seizure disorders and anxiety disorders. They help to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and also prevent the seizures that can sometimes be a complication of withdrawal. The downside to using benzodiazepines is that they leave the patient sedated and less able to participate in other types of treatment, like therapy.
  • Adrenergic drugs. Adrenergic drugs are used to alter adrenergic receptors on nerve cells. These receptors play a role in the development of withdrawal symptoms. This type of medication is typically used in conjunction with benzodiazepines.
  • Anti-seizure drugs. Seizures are among the most dangerous of possible detox complications. Anti-seizure drugs can prevent seizures, but also treat anxiety, depression and irritability without the sedation caused by benzodiazepines.

Treating Severe Alcohol Withdrawal With Medical Detox

For the most severe type of alcohol withdrawal, delirium tremens, medical detox is necessary. There is no perfect medication for this condition, though. Benzodiazepines can help, especially since they prevent seizures, but the sedative effect tends to increase the patient’s confusion. Antipsychotics may also be used and help bring hallucinations under control, but they do not prevent seizures.

Seizures are not uncommon during detox, especially for heavy, long-term drinkers. One goal of all medical detox is to prevent seizures, but it is especially important for those patients with greater risk of experiencing them. Antiepileptic drugs may be used in addition to benzodiazepines to provide extra prevention.

Continuing With Treatment for Alcoholism

If you are detoxing from alcohol, it is important to note that medical detox is not a cure for addiction. It is only the first step. To heal from an addictive disorder, you need to continue with some kind of treatment program after detoxing. If you detox with medical assistance and then follow through with a comprehensive treatment plan, you give yourself the best chance of getting and staying sober.