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Alcohol detox describes what happens when your body gradually tapers off of alcohol, after having become physically dependent on the drug. That may sound simple and straightforward enough, but in reality, it’s not.
Risks and Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal
Withdrawal from a substance causing chemical dependency is always risky, inviting potentially dangerous complications. Alcohol detox in particular presents some very real dangers. Case in point: a condition known as delirium tremens (DT), in which 15 percent of cases are fatal.
That’s why medically supervised alcohol detox in a licensed recovery center is always the most advisable approach to treating an alcohol dependency.
Fears About Alcohol Detox
Even in this context, however, detoxing from alcohol is often new and scary uncharted territory for many individuals. They naturally have questions and concerns about what to expect. They also have fears—a normal reaction to a process often shrouded in mystery:
- They’re afraid to go cold turkey from a substance they’ve come to think they need in order to get by.
- They’re afraid to go through the withdrawal symptoms.
- They’re afraid something could go wrong during the process.
- They’re afraid to ask for help if/when they do encounter an issue in detox.
- They’re afraid about what happens after detox—and that detox may leave them feeling even more vulnerable to the life stressors they’re returning to.
- They’re afraid even to be seen undergoing withdrawal from a substance they’ve secretly come to depend on so very much.
- They’re afraid to be in a different place and in a different bed, overseen by strangers—even if those strangers are nice.
- They’re afraid those caring for them won’t understand their pain and won’t be qualified to treat it.
- They’re afraid detox won’t be successful—and that they’ll go right back to drinking afterward.
- They’re afraid to “burden” others with a problem that causes them so much shame.
- They’re afraid to take the time away from work, since it could be a long stretch.
- They’re afraid of the financial costs.
Such fears about alcohol detox abound. But as Winston Churchill once said, “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”
Alcohol Detox: 3 Biggest Questions
What Churchill did not say is that more information only equals more courage. Having answers to the three biggest questions about alcohol detox can alleviate many of these common fears by demystifying the treatment process so that individuals and families have more information, and, in turn, greater decision-making power—and greater courage.
Take a look at the three biggest questions about alcohol detox and their answers:
1. What is alcohol withdrawal like?
One particularly helpful analogy is that of a coiled spring you’ve been tightly pressing down on by chronic heavy drinking. Withdrawal from alcohol releases that coiled spring, so that the body then tries to compensate by frantically ramping up its production of hormones and neurochemicals. These flood the body with an intense, excitatory reaction producing various symptoms, and these symptoms, running the gamut from mild to severe, comprise what’s called “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome” (AWS). Minor symptoms can include insomnia, tremors, heart palpitations, nausea, sweating and an upset stomach. More severe symptoms can include vomiting, dehydration and hallucinations, as well as DT, which can include life-threatening head injuries, dehydration, heart attacks, seizures and strokes.
During supervised alcohol detox, a team of caring and highly experienced medical professionals manages AWS and its symptoms 24/7. They are there to regularly check vital signs and monitor hydration levels with intravenous fluids. They are also there to ensure that those in their care feel as comfortable as possible. To that end, they may administer various supplements or prescription medications to ease the symptoms of withdrawal—for example, a tranquilizing benzodiazepine like Xanax or Klonopin for anxiety, or the drug naltrexone for especially intense cravings.
2. How long will detox take?
That depends on the person. Symptoms of AWS begin on average within about eight hours after the last drink. Sometimes, though, these may begin as late as one to three days after the last drink.
Detox itself can thus take anywhere from five days to two weeks. Its duration—in terms of how long acute withdrawal symptoms persist and how long it takes for alcohol to clear the body—depends on a person’s size, gender, alcohol absorption and metabolism rates, and how long they have been drinking and how much.
3. How much will detox cost?
A great source of concern for many individuals and families considering alcohol detox is how much it costs. There’s no exact answer in the way of a universal dollar sign. Thankfully, though, thanks to recent changes in healthcare law that now require insurance companies to cover treatment for mental illness—including substance use disorders like alcoholism—individuals and families considering detox now can enjoy much greater access to affordable treatment that won’t break the bank. In many cases, a private health insurance will cover much of the cost of detox, if not all of it. For those without health insurance, there are other options, like flexible self-payment plans and various financing options. What that means is that today the price of alcohol detox is less an obstacle than it ever has been. That’s just one more reason to choose courage over fear and get help.