What Does It Take to Detox from Alcohol?

Find out when drinking becomes an addiction, learn the symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal, and discover how to detox safely at home if you can’t afford inpatient treatment. 

When it comes to cases of chronic alcoholism, detoxing isn’t just a matter of quitting cold turkey. Long-term drinking recovery, though it can be done at home, may be far safer with professional help. Substance abuse alters the body’s functions, and sudden changes can actually endanger the life of the loved one you’re trying to save. Review this information on the detoxification process and the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, and then decide if maybe a treatment program might be better for all family members involved.

When Is Drinking Alcohol Considered Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is distinct, clinically speaking, from moderate or even regular drinking. Some of the earliest warning signs of alcohol dependency include having an emotional attachment to drinking and craving it even when there’s no outside prompt, such as a party, a celebratory event that calls for champagne, or a nice anniversary dinner where a bottle of wine is shared.

Emotional dependency to alcohol can lead to a physical dependency. Addiction occurs when the physical and behavioral signs of alcoholism arise (shaking hands or isolating from family and commitments) and when the person cannot independently control his or her drinking.

The Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Let’s say you want to stop drinking after an alcohol-heavy season, such as spring break or the holidays. You might feel a mild version of the detox process. Side effects like mood swings, body aches, and even some slight tremors usually cause overwhelming worry—a non-addict might even decide to stop drinking for their New Year’s resolution, and be successful at it.

The same is not always true for alcohol addicts, or dipsomaniacs as they used to be called in the 1800s, the Greek dipso– for “thirst” and –mania for “madness,” referring to those with a “morbid craving for alcohol.” Now known as alcohol use disorder or AUD, the symptoms of alcohol detox are still the same, and severe withdrawal can be life-threatening. For those who are trying to dry out after years of heavy drinking, they are at risk of all of these symptoms, from mild to serious:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens (also known as “the D.T.s”)

Keep in mind that the most severe symptoms involve recovery from damage done to the central nervous system, which is why in some cases a treatment center is the best option if it’s possible. Not only can inpatient treatment ensure there are medical professionals there to monitor high blood pressure and distribute appropriate amounts of withdrawal medications, but the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is combined for a reason: there may be underlying mental health issues that alcohol abuse has either hidden from knowledge or been used to “treat” (conditions like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder). Other drugs and addictions may be at play as well.

Likewise underlying medical conditions can put people at greater risk too, like heart, lung, liver, or kidney conditions that may quickly worsen the impact of alcohol withdrawal.

Delirium tremens is the most severe form of withdrawal, and can encompass many of the above-listed symptoms and overwhelm the body to the point of cardiovascular collapse. It may not start the first day either: these symptoms could arise anywhere between 2 and 5 days after the addict’s last drink, as the body begins to process all the alcohol and then comes to find out there’s no more incoming.

Delirium tremens affects less than 5% of recovering alcoholics, so while it’s not an inevitable occurrence, it’s nevertheless still important to be aware of the risk in case your loved one is in that 5% and in need of professional substance abuse treatment to monitor their blood pressure and heart rate in a fully equipped treatment facility.

How to detox from alcohol.

How to Detox from Alcohol

Not everyone will have the resources for professional help when it comes to quitting alcohol, and while there are programs available to help, like the peer-counseling at Alcoholics Anonymous, keep in mind the AA’s Serenity Prayer, which asks for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” You or your loved one may be able to detox from alcohol at home, but if you can’t, it’s important to have the wisdom to know the difference.

That being said, here is how to detox from alcohol.

1. Taper Off

Quitting cold turkey means suddenly taking away a substance the body has learned to rely on, basically pulling the rug out from under oneself. A change like that means the body has to adapt all at once, and it may cause or exacerbate symptoms of withdrawal that needn’t have been felt with a careful tapering off of alcohol consumption.

While tapering can help slowly notch down physical alcohol dependence, an addict’s emotional attachment to alcohol and to drinking may get in the way. If you’re doing this on your own, you may backslide, and if you’re helping a family member, they may just be cheating and sneaking extra booze when you’re not looking. This is why a rehab center can be so valuable in cases of alcohol addiction, so that not only are the physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms met with medical supervision, but no interpersonal relationships are irreparably damaged in the process.

Long-term alcohol use means alcohol is the new normal for the addict’s body. Imagine how you feel when you try to quit sugar or caffeine, and know that it is much harder to quit drinking because alcohol is a much stronger drug.

2. Know Your Limits

To taper off, you must first start by being honest about how much alcohol you or your loved one drinks each day. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines 1 drink as either:

  • 1 bottle of beer: 12 ounces at 5% alcohol content
  • 1 glass of wine: 5 ounces at 12% alcohol content
  • 1 mixed drink: 1.5 ounces of liquor at 40% alcohol content

These numbers may not directly correlate with each brand of alcohol product, but they are a guideline to provide a rough estimation of just how many drinks are being consumed each day. Beer is most recommended for tapering off, as it tends to have a lower alcohol percent by volume than wine or spirits do.

3. Take Your Time

Tapering should involve:

  • Taking between 3 and 7 days to ween down, depending on how much the person is accustomed to drinking
  • Temporarily increasing alcohol consumption if withdrawal symptoms arise
  • Seeking professional addiction treatment by way of a detox program if you’re unable to stop drinking at home

At-Home Detox Tips

For the milder symptoms of alcohol detox, it is possible to treat them at home. Some tips to keep in mind include:

  • Water: Alcohol is a diuretic, and long-term alcoholics have probably been in a case of mild dehydration for a very long time. Staying hydrated can help reduce mental confusion, irritability, and fatigue.
  • Electrolyte drinks: With dehydration comes a loss of certain minerals like electrolytes. Having some sports drinks with electrolytes like potassium, sodium, and calcium will help the recoverer feel better faster.
  • Healthy diet: Alcohol is full of sugar, and many people in rehab discover that they have a maddening sugar craving when they quit drinking. However, trading booze for sugar won’t help anyone feel better at the end of the day, so try to concentrate on a diet that contains the proper amount of protein, carbs (also sugars), fats, minerals, and vitamins.
  • Hygiene: No, a hot shower won’t help you “sweat out” the alcohol dependency faster, and in fact, it could cause a dangerous change in your body temperature. However, a warm shower or bath can help relax your wrung-out muscles, distract you from the discomforts of withdrawal, and leave you feeling refreshed and more like yourself again.
  • Meditation and calming techniques: Controlled breathing techniques can help normalize your blood pressure and heart rate, while meditation can help clear and focus your mind. While you may not experience the severe symptom of hallucinations, many recovering addicts have overwhelmingly intense dreams as the higher parts of their brain come back online.

You Can Do This

Whether you’re attempting to detox with or without help, engage in as much self-care as possible: stock up on your favorite movies, cuddle up in blankets if you feel a chill, and slap on a cool, damp cloth if you feel too warm. Try to avoid taking medications as much as possible so you don’t overtax your detox organs (the liver and kidneys), and if you’re at all worried that withdrawal symptoms are getting too severe, seek help from a trusted medical professional. As bad as it feels, people have detoxed before and you can do it too, just do it safely, and be well.

End-Stage Alcoholism: The Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

Learn about the progressing stages of alcoholism and what end-stage alcohol addiction looks like. Recognizing these symptoms in a family member or loved one could help save his or her life.

Alcohol is a powerful substance with a long and varied history. On one hand alcohol has been a substance of social lubrication and celebration for thousands of years, but on the other it is, in essence, a poison that can lead to addiction and have devastating personal consequences. Alcoholism is a disease that affects up to 1 out of every 8 Americans and contributes to around 88,000 deaths per year. If alcoholism progresses unchecked, it can culminate in end-stage alcoholism and even premature death. This article describes the signs of alcohol addiction and what happens when a loved one reaches the end stages of alcohol abuse.

The Early Signs of Alcoholism

Some people can drink alcohol regularly and never develop an alcohol addiction problem. Others go through periods of alcohol abuse or overuse, for example during college or in times of high stress. Alcohol use disorder can advance over many years, but it contains three distinct stages. We’ll begin with the overview of the initial stages before fully exploring the end-stage symptoms of alcoholism.

Stage One: Social Drinking, Binge Drinking, and Occasional Alcohol Abuse

This first stage of alcoholism is essentially an exploratory stage. When those who ultimately become addicted to alcohol first enter stage one, they often experiment with different kinds of alcohol and test their limits with binge drinking. This is common among young adults, particularly teens and college-aged individuals.

  • For men: Binge drinking is more than 5 alcoholic beverages in a 2-hour window.
  • For women: Consuming 4 or more alcoholic beverages in 2 hours is considered binge drinking.

Playing games meant to accelerate drunkenness (like beer pong) often leads to consuming much more than the above-listed minimum for binge drinking. While chronic, long-term alcohol use is dangerous, so are these short bouts of binge drinking, as they can cause alcohol poisoning, coma, and sometimes death. It also begins an addiction pattern whereby people begin to develop a dependency on the feeling that alcohol provides.

Problematic Alcohol Abuse

Once the habit of drinking escalates past the early stage of social drinking, binge drinking, and excessive partying, the issue progresses to the second stage of alcoholism. This is marked by an emotional dependency on the drug of alcohol. It is less about feeling good at a special event and more about wanting to feel that way all the time. Drinking at this stage occurs to prevent the feelings of acute alcohol withdrawal.

Stage Two: Increased Dependency on Alcohol and Problem Drinking

In the second stage of alcoholism, alcohol consumption increases in frequency and is no longer tied to special events like partying. A person in stage two is likely to start drinking every weekend, and then may increase to drinking every day. The impulse for drinking is no longer to have fun at a party, but may arise from the following desires:

  • To relieve stress
  • As an excuse to bring together friends
  • To relieve boredom
  • To avoid feelings of loneliness or sadness

At this stage, emotions motivate drinking habits, which is what makes regular alcohol use different from otherwise moderate drinking: people become emotionally attached. Instead of the moderate drinker’s glass of wine with a meal, the regular drinker consumes alcohol to feel good, and the more they drink, the more physically and emotionally dependent they become, which can ultimately lead to the development of full-blown alcoholism.

This middle stage also brings about social changes related to the drinking problem: changes in friendships, strife with romantic attachments, erratic social behavior, and increasingly regular failures to uphold certain commitments (like getting to work on time, picking kids up from school, or abstaining from alcohol while pregnant).

The drinker will likely become aware that the effects of heavy drinking (irregular sleep patterns, depression, and anxiety) often make him or her feel sick, but they will still not curb, moderate, or quit the habit. They may begin to experience legal trouble resulting from incidents like public intoxication or drinking and driving.

At this stage, a drinking problem becomes obvious and family members will start to urge their loved one to stop drinking. If they can’t stop with or without intervention, the disease progresses to the next stage.

End-stage alcoholism: signs and symptoms.

End-Stage Alcoholism

The final stage of alcoholism occurs when drinking has consumed the life of the addicted person. They now must drink to avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and they must schedule their life around this need. Without getting help with detox and rehab, the addict may drink themselves to death.

Stage Three: Addiction

Alcohol dependency is a habit that can be stopped, but alcohol addiction is characterized by an inability to curb the harmful use of alcohol. This starts to lead to other problems in life, including the following devastating physical health problems.

  • Racing heart palpitations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Body tremors due to nervous system damage
  • Nausea unrelated to hangovers
  • Severe irritability
  • Insomnia or trouble sleeping
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver damage or alcoholic hepatitis

A late-stage or end-stage alcoholic has to drink more and more, not for the enjoyment of alcohol, but to meet a persistent psychological and physiological need. They may be inconsolable until they can resume drinking each day, and may have other drug addictions and compulsive behaviors and rituals surrounding their drinking. They will most likely ignore any and all social conventions, and drink in the daytime, in the morning, alone, at non-alcoholic gatherings, or at work.

Treatment options exist to help end-stage alcoholics with alcohol withdrawal symptoms and social coping mechanisms, and it’s important to seek such treatment to avoid cirrhosis of the liver, liver disease, and liver failure. In the case of liver failure, the person will not be able to survive without a liver transplant, and many hospitals won’t perform a transplant until the patient has been able to abstain from alcohol for at least 6 months. This is not possible for many addicts in the United States, even if they do receive adequate and professional addiction treatment.

The Final Stage

Late stage alcoholism is a scary processes to go through and heartbreaking to observe. When alcohol dependence leads to increased substance abuse and a barrage of detrimental health conditions from blackouts to alcoholic liver disease, many people feel that they are watching a slow-motion car crash they are unable to stop.

Occasionally the last stage of alcoholism comes as a surprise if the addict is what’s known as a high-functioning alcoholic, able to maintain social decorum and maintain employment until the problem has progressed to the final stages of addiction.

It’s important to remember that alcoholism develops over a long period of time, and that being able to recognize the stages of alcoholism in a family member or friend could help save their life by getting them the help of a medical professional before it’s too late. That being said, any stage of alcoholism is dangerous, from initial youthful binge drinking right up to the end stage when people start to experience liver, heart, and brain damage, not to mention malnutrition and mental health disorders (which could lead to suicide).

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, once wrote of alcoholism, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” That is a very succinct summary of the three stages of alcoholism, including the final stage. Before the drink takes one of your loved ones away from you, know the warning signs of alcohol addiction, and do what you can to help them quit drinking while there’s still time to recover.