In a study regarding alcohol use and misuse in Ireland, researchers found that hospital admissions due to alcohol increased 80 percent on the weekends, and the average length of stay was 2.7 days.1
It’s unclear what landed these people in the hospital, but it’s possible some entered these facilities due to injuries they sustained while under the influence. While in the hospital, these people were given the chance to heal from their injuries, and their bodies were allowed the opportunity to process all of the alcohol left in their bloodstreams. During this short period of detox, people were able to heal and move forward, but it’s quite possible these people went right back to drinking when they were released from the hospital. This can be incredibly risky. In fact, people who go through multiple short detoxes like this, without following up with alcohol rehab programs, might be at risk for serious complications the next time they go through detox.
Sedating the Mind
Alcohol works on the brain’s cells that regulate activity and excitement. The alcohol works a bit like padding, wrapping up those cells and soothing them, so they do not respond to information moving toward them. As a result, the brain begins to function at a slow, sedate pace, with only a few cells responding to each stimulus provided. This muffled, slowed brain can wake up when alcohol is removed, but alcoholics might never allow that mind to fully awaken. Alcoholics might drink throughout the day, drinking first thing in the morning, continuing in the afternoon and tossing back nightcaps when bedtime comes. Over time, the brain begins to believe that a slow and steady pace is just normal, or even preferable.
When an alcoholic person chooses to stop drinking, and that padding around the cells is removed, the excited cells awaken once more and the brain crackles and snaps with activity. These awakened cells are slightly damaged in the process and are slightly more likely to overreact during the next detox process. If the person chooses to start drinking again and then subsequently chooses to stop drinking again, these cells can spring into life quite quickly and cause terrible side effects to take place. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal tend to grow worse with each attempt to complete detox.2 That’s why it’s so important for people to get detox right, the very first time and maintain sobriety for the rest of their lives.
The symptoms of mild alcohol withdrawal are likely familiar to anyone who’s had too much to drink. Symptoms might include the following:
- Clammy skin
- Pale skin
Over time, these symptoms can increase in severity and move from the physical realm to the mental. People might feel depressed or anxious as though they are unable to completely process what has happened to them and what might happen in the future. As more and more cells begin to wake up, people might develop more severe symptoms, seeing things that aren’t there and hearing noises others can’t hear. Some people progress into seizures as their brain cells awaken and begin firing. These seizures are rare, but they can be life threatening.
Since alcohol withdrawal can cause serious symptoms like this, most experts agree that people need to at least talk to their doctors before they consider reducing or stopping their alcohol use and abuse. Some people may be able to go through the process on their own at home, with the help of their doctors. For example, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 72 percent of people who obtained outpatient care for detox were able to complete the process, and they performed well at a six-month follow-up appointment.3 For some people, this is a viable option. However, there are some people who need to obtain around-the-clock medical supervision while they go through alcohol detox. For these people, inpatient programs are vital to long-term success.
Inpatient Detox Services
According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, alcohol detox is usually accomplished within two to three days although stays as long as five days aren’t uncommon.4 When the person enters the program, the staff performs a complete medical examination and asks the person questions such as the following:
- How much alcohol do you drink every day?
- Have you been through detox before?
- What happened during that time?
- Are you using other drugs?
- Are you taking prescription medications?
The person is then taken to a private and secluded room and allowed to settle in while the detox process begins. Periodically, the staff checks in and takes measurements of the person’s blood pressure, pulse and temperature. The staff members might also ask the person to describe how he/she is feeling. If the person begins to demonstrate symptoms of withdrawal, such as a fever, sweating or hallucinations, medications are provided to soothe the mind and help the process to move forward. The person might also be provided with bland and soothing foods and plenty of fluids, to help the body flush out the alcohol.
Benzodiazepine medications are commonly provided to people in alcohol detox, according to an article in the American Family Physician, as they tend to work on the same receptors used by alcohol and they bring about similar effects on the mind.5 Other medications have also been used during detox, including beta-blockers, haloperidol, clonidine and phenytoin. While these medications are very helpful for some people in the withdrawal process, they’re not required for each person who goes through detox. In fact, some people manage to get through alcohol detox without taking any medications at all.
Detox alone isn’t considered a therapy for addiction. Instead, it’s considered a preemptive step a person must take in order to prepare for the hard work of alcoholism rehab. A person who is inebriated from alcohol simply cannot do the hard work of therapy and isn’t considered prepared to move forward with care. Detox is a vital first step that must be completed in order to achieve long-term success.
Some detox programs ask patients to attend group meetings as soon as they feel well enough to do so. Other programs provide people with one-on-one counseling so they can begin to understand why their addictions developed and what they should be doing in the future to keep those addictions from growing and spreading.
Similarly, some detox programs are housed within the same buildings that house rehab programs, and people who are completing detox are asked to spend time in the rehab facility, acclimating themselves to the concept of long-term care. By using these subtle but persistent steps, detox programs help to push those recovering from alcoholism to accept the inevitability of continuing care.It could make all the difference in the world to those who need to leave an addiction behind them. Detox programs strive to help people see the importance of long-term rehab care.
Alcohol detox is not considered pleasant or fun. Even with medications, the process can be physically uncomfortable, and people in detox might be confronted with memories and thoughts they’ve been suppressing for decades. All of this hard work really can pay off, however, as detox programs can allow people to clear their minds and prepare their bodies for long-term sobriety. The cycle of addiction can end, and a new life can begin.
If you think you or someone you know is in need of alcohol detox or treatment for an alcohol addiction, contact us at our toll-free helpline.
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1 A. O’Farrell, S. Allwright, J. Downey, D. Bedford, F Howell. “The burden of alcohol misuse on emergency in-patient hospital admissions among residents from a health board region in Ireland.” NCBI. October 2004. Accessed 5 August 2017.
2 “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” FamilyDoctor.org. February 2014. Accessed 5 August 2017.
3 Motoi Hayashida, et al. “Comparative Effectiveness and Costs of Inpatient and Outpatient Detoxification of Patients with Mild-to-Moderate Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” New England Journal of Medicine. 9 February 1989. Accessed 5 August 2017.
4 “National Coverage Determination (NCD) for Inpatient Hospital Stays for Treatment of Alcoholism.” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Accessed 5 August 2017.
5 M Bayard et al. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” American Family Physician. March 2004. Accessed 5 August 2017.