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September 18, 2018

Who Needs Alcohol Detox?

safety first painted on the street

“Medical detox” is the first step to recovery for anyone serious about kicking a drinking habit once and for all. Medical detox from alcohol refers to a supervised, inpatient passage through the alcohol withdrawal process. During this time, the individual receives 24/7 monitoring of vital signs, medication-assisted treatments (MATs) to relieve cravings and other withdrawal symptoms, and immediate medical help if/when complications arise. (With alcohol especially, medical management of withdrawal is critical, given the potential for potentially fatal medical emergencies like grand mal seizures.)

Other potentially serious complications that can arise in alcohol withdrawal, making at-home detox a risky gamble, include:

  • High fever
  • Extreme vomiting (and in turn dehydration)
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations and extreme agitation (known as “delirium tremens”)
  • Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat

Medical detox is also a necessary component of abstinence-based treatment— which is the gold standard for treating alcohol use disorders, based on its association with better recovery outcomes. After all, problem drinking often stems from a combination of physical, psychological and environmental factors: in addition to the chemical dependency itself, characterized by symptoms of alcohol tolerance and withdrawal, there are often other behavioral factors at play, such as a “dual diagnosis” or unresolved experience of trauma.

These complex roots of a drinking problem are easier to identify and effectively treat once detox is complete and alcohol is out of your system.

When alcohol has begun to wreak havoc in your life, you, therefore, need to detox fully from the substance before you can hope to make any progress toward living in sobriety and making meaningful strides toward desirable life goals. A safe and complete detox, which is best achieved through a medically managed withdrawal, is conclusively the first necessary step to recovery, as part of a comprehensive medical and clinical approach that includes behavioral therapies. (To learn more about medically managed detox from alcohol, check out this detailed “Alcohol Rehab Guide.”)

Signs of a Drinking Problem

Only a trained medical professional can ultimately tell you—on the basis of a detailed medical and clinical assessment for diagnosing substance use disorders—whether you need alcohol detox. That said, here are some questions to consider that can help you determine whether to seek professional alcohol help for you or a loved one:

  • Have you ever felt remorse after drinking?
  • Do you drink in order to feel more comfortable socializing with others?
  • Has your drinking caused neglect or harm to family members?
  • Have you experienced financial difficulties as a result of drinking?
  • Is your drinking making your home life unhappy?
  • Has drinking impacted your job performance and/or productivity at work?
  • After a night of heavy drinking, do you wake up with cravings for another drink?
  • Do you drink to escape from worries or troubles?
  • Do you drink mostly alone?
  • Do you keep on drinking even after your friends say they have had enough to drink?
  • When you don’t drink, have you experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms (nausea, sweating, shaking, etc.) that make you want to drink more?
  • Do you find yourself getting irritated or defensive when friends or family members express concern about your drinking?
  • Have you tried unsuccessfully to cut down or manage your drinking?
  • Do you spend a lot of time drinking or engaging in drinking-related thoughts and behaviors, such as buying alcohol, making drinks, hanging out at bars, etc.?

If you answered “yes” to even a few of the above questions, it’s possible you could benefit from alcohol detox, pending a diagnosis by medical professionals. (As a further exploration, see also these “12 Questions to Ask Yourself.”)

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

By all means, anyone who has been diagnosed with an untreated alcohol use disorder needs a detox. Alcohol use disorder is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease, characterized by the following key symptoms (among others):

  • Preoccupation with alcohol
  • An inability to control one’s drinking
  • Continued use of alcohol despite negative consequences
  • The experience of physical symptoms of withdrawal when former levels of drinking cease

If left untreated, alcohol use disorder and its more severe manifestation, alcoholism, can cause serious long-term health damage and premature death.

Help in Cases of Alcohol Overdose and Poisoning

Finally, remember that drinking excessive amounts of alcohol may result in overdose from alcohol poisoning. This is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical help. The only safe overdose treatment is supportive care from medical professionals, likely in a hospital emergency department, where doctors and nurses carefully monitor the patient to prevent respiratory and choking problems, administer oxygen and intravenous fluids and give the patient vitamins and glucose to prevent serious alcohol poisoning complications.

For related information about who needs alcohol detox, see the following articles:

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