Of the approximately 17.6 million Americans suffering from excessive drinking, or Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), comparatively few actually seek treatment for it. One of the barriers to getting help is in the form of many stories that detail the severity and dangers of the detoxification or “detox” process. Alcohol detoxification is the process of stopping all alcohol use and allowing the body to completely cleanse itself of this substance. Depending on how long the person has been abusing it, a sudden stop in alcohol use can result in serious and devastating withdrawal symptoms. When they hear how unpleasant it can be, many people want to know how long the detox process takes.
FACTORS AFFECTING THE DETOXIFICATION PROCESS
Typically, detoxification itself (ridding the body of alcohol) lasts from 7 to 10 days. However, this time may be lengthened due to the factors explained below. Also, some of the symptoms that result from stopping alcohol use can persist for weeks afterward, or longer.
As mentioned above, the first major factor in determining the possible length and severity of the detox process is the length of time the person has been abusing alcohol. Has it been months or years? Closely associated with this factor is the frequency of the person’s drinking, and the amount of alcohol consumed per day. Does the person drink all day, every day, or does he or she go on periodic binges of uncontrolled drinking? Basically, the longer the body has been forced to adjust to and depend on alcohol in order to function, the more severe the withdrawal symptoms will be, thus resulting in a longer detox process.
Other factors that can lengthen the detoxification process involve any co-occurring mental or physical health problems the person may have. The mental problems may either be caused by the person’s drinking, or already be present. Bipolar disorder or depression are examples of mental conditions that accompany alcohol abuse. Physical problems such as a chronic illness or chronic pain can also complicate the process. Combinations of any of these factors can also have the effect of lengthening the detox process.
THE STAGES OF THE DETOXIFICATION PROCESS
Detoxification can be divided roughly into 3 stages:
Acute Withdrawal: The onset of alcohol withdrawal is typically manifest by tremors and nervous system hyperactivity. These are accompanied by an increased heart rate, an increase in blood pressure, profuse sweating, deregulation of body temperature, and possibly nausea and vomiting. Under medical supervision, the effects of these symptoms can be reduced with medication.
Early Abstinence: The acute physical symptoms gradually disappear during this stage of alcohol abstinence. However, the person will still experience anxiety and disturbed sleep patterns. These nervous symptoms will usually disappear between 3 and 6 weeks after the person has stopped using alcohol.
Protracted Abstinence: While the feeling of anxiety and unease gradually disappears during this stage, the person remains very sensitive to even small challenges that may occur. This sensitivity typically results in pronounced negative responses and emotional outbursts, as well as in a strong craving for alcohol. These cravings can be overwhelming to the point that the person experiences a relapse.
The stages of detoxification described above are basic descriptions, and do not take into account instances of co-occurring mental or physical conditions. There is no “one size fits all” process of detoxification. The experience will differ with each individual.
AFTER THE DETOXIFICATION PROCESS
There is still much work for a recovering individual to do following detoxification, which is only the first phase of recovery from an alcohol addiction. The individual is still very vulnerable to behavioral triggers and temptations to return to alcohol use. A full-term recovery program can last from 30 to 60 days. However, it is important to know that in such a program, the individual will learn new coping skills and techniques that will help him or her avoid the trap of relapse. Group therapy will help the individual develop a support system as he or she listens to and learns from the experiences of others. Best of all, in a recovery program, the individual will gradually be able to visualize himself living a productive and meaningful life without alcohol.