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Alcohol Detox Symptoms: When Do You Need Medical Intervention?

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When you have been abusing alcohol for a long period of time and quit cold turkey, you will likely experience withdrawal or alcohol detox symptoms. These symptoms and the risk of alcohol poisoning associated with alcohol misuse,5 may require medically-supervised alcohol detox.

What is Detox?

Detoxification treats symptoms associated with substance use.4 This process focuses on removing the substance from the body. It may help you return to living a life without alcohol.

Your alcohol detox timeline will depend on the severity of your alcohol use and other unique personal factors. An alcohol detox plan can include 3 stages:4

  1. Evaluating the need for detox
  2. Stabilizing symptoms associated with alcohol use and withdrawal
  3. Transition into substance use or addiction treatment

Alcohol Detox Evaluation

When considering how to detox from alcohol, medical professionals consider several symptoms and personal factors.

A few questions that can help guide your detox program include:4

  • How long have you used alcohol?
  • When was your last drink?
  • How much did you last use?
  • Have you ever gone a few days without drinking? If so, what happened?
  • Have you taken any other substances?
  • Have you ever experienced withdrawal symptoms?
  • Are you taking anything that could affect withdrawal symptoms?

Alcohol Detox Symptoms (Withdrawal)

Detoxing from alcohol can cause withdrawal symptoms that range in intensity. Withdrawal from alcohol use generally begins between 6 and 24 hours following your last drink5.

Withdrawal symptoms often become worse the longer and higher quantities of alcohol you drink. Advanced age and a history of past withdrawals can also worsen the intensity of withdrawals.3

Alcohol detox symptoms can create a host of concerns with some of these requiring medical attention due to their potentially life-threatening effects. If you or a loved one experiences symptoms of alcohol detox withdrawal, seek medical attention immediately.

Symptoms of alcohol detox withdrawal include:3-6

  • Sweating
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Poor appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and touch
  • Shakiness
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Changes in mood
  • Difficulty concentrating or with memory
  • Poor judgment
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

Withdrawal symptoms can have life-threatening consequences if left untreated.5 Delirium Tremens (DTs) can contribute to increased respiratory and cardiac concerns.5 If you have DTs, you might experience intense shakiness, hallucinations, and body tremors.5 Due to the medical risks of withdrawal and the potential for DTs, you may require medical supervision to detox safely.

Symptoms and the Risk of Relapse

Medical professionals can evaluate the nature of your withdrawal and monitor your progress for any complications that may arise.4 Even with support, the detox process can pose several challenges for someone with a severe alcohol use disorder.

You may want to return to drinking to avoid the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms4 and intense withdrawal symptoms might reduce your motivation to complete the detox process. Additionally, the detox process may temporarily interfere with your daily routine causing you to relapse. Persistent relapse comes with its own challenges and can lead to long-term impairment and severe consequences for your overall health.4

Other things that may impact the alcohol detox process and lead to relapse include:4

  • Risk of suicide or violence
  • Violence in the home
  • Access to transportation
  • Your ability to complete medical instructions
  • Who can support the detox process
  • How supportive is your recovery environment
  • Medical or psychiatric concerns that may complicate withdrawal or detox
  • Your level of motivation to quit drinking
  • Your risk of relapse

Attending to these factors can help your provider develop alcohol detox protocols that meet your needs.4 A holistic approach to detox can lay the groundwork for lasting recovery.

Detoxing from Alcohol Safely

The goal of detox includes managing symptoms of withdrawal and disrupting patterns of alcohol use.5 The physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal can last several weeks so it’s important to stabilize symptoms and plan for the present and future treatment.6

Each person, and each episode of withdrawal, presents different concerns. The initial evaluation can help determine where you need to receive care.4

Outpatient, intensive outpatient, residential, and inpatient levels of care offer different approaches to meet your needs. Outpatient and residential levels of care may offer a strictly social approach to alcohol detox and all levels of care, including inpatient, can offer blended approaches to treatment.4

A blended approach to detox uses social and medical tools to meet the shifting challenges posed by withdrawal and alcohol detox symptoms.

Different medications can treat withdrawal based on symptom severity.7 Medications used in alcohol detox include:

  • Pain relievers
  • Anti-diarrheal medications
  • Anti-emetic medications
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Gabapentin
  • Clonidine
  • Naltrexone
  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram

Only a qualified medical professional can determine what medication would best suit your needs. Call 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers to discuss treatment options with a specialist today.

Outpatient Alcohol Detox

If you have fewer and less intense (mild to moderate) withdrawal symptoms you may benefit from outpatient care.4 This approach may include referrals to other outpatient medical services as needed and include monitoring by a qualified medical professional who regularly evaluates the detox process.

Success at this level of care often requires:7

  • Supportive home environment
  • Access to transportation
  • Monitoring by medical professionals
  • Willingness to regularly engage with treating clinicians

More intensive forms of outpatient care allow doctors to monitor your withdrawal symptoms daily or with increased frequency.5 Day hospital, intensive outpatient, or partial hospitalization programs have medical staff available to assist with the alcohol detox process.

A medical model approach uses medication-assisted treatment to manage symptoms of withdrawal.4 Qualified health professionals at these levels of care conduct frequent assessments of your withdrawal symptoms.5 They also prescribe medication to manage alcohol detox symptoms.

Residential Treatment

Residential treatment can offer support when your withdrawal symptoms require 24-hour monitoring.5 Peer and therapeutic relationships at this level of care can help you navigate the emotional challenges of detox.

More intense than outpatient care, residential treatment typically offers daily programming such as therapy or support groups. Treatment programming encourages sobriety and engagement in long-term recovery.4

Inpatient Detox

Inpatient detoxification services provide 24-hour medically monitored care.5 You may qualify for this level of care if your symptoms present moderate to severe medical risks. If your alcohol use or withdrawal symptoms put your health at imminent risk of severe injury or death, acute inpatient care may offer the support you need.

Rehab After Alcohol Detox

Detoxification from alcohol is the first step on the road to recovery.4 At each step in the evaluation and stabilization process, professionals will look for ways to motivate you to continue treatment after detox. The psychological and physical effects of withdrawal, especially when severe, can challenge the strongest of wills.

Alcohol use disorders and mental health disorders often influence and amplify one another.4 The relationship between challenging life experiences and alcohol use requires a holistic approach to care. Treating mental health concerns can improve the management of alcohol use disorders and improve your motivation to continue engaging in treatment.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and other evidence-based treatment approaches can help you continue to heal after detox. Engaging in therapy can help you change your thinking, manage challenging emotions, and take action to stay sober. Family therapy can also allow you and your loved ones to learn supportive practices to use outside of treatment.

The community of people in recovery can also offer guidance in making lifestyle changes. There are many online support groups and 12-step recovery groups to reach out to once you’ve made the decision to get clean and sober.

Case management services can help you address other areas of your life affected by alcohol use, including:

  • Financial
  • Legal
  • Occupational
  • Social
  • Family

The factors impacting your alcohol detox timeline depend on your personal history and health concerns. Continuing treatment can help you safely manage symptoms of addiction and dependence, and help you learn new coping skills as you transition into a life of sobriety. Call 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers today to discuss treatment options with a specialist.


  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Alcohol Abuse: CBHSQ Data.
  2. S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, March). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Substance-related and addictive disorders. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
  4. Miller, W. R., Forcehimes, A. A., & Zweben, A. (2011). Treating addiction: A guide for professionals. The Guilford Press.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July 24). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts.
  6. National Institute of Health: U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021, February 26). Alcohol withdrawal.
  7. Bergeron-Parent, C. (2020). Alcohol withdrawal in my office…Yes! Family Doctor: A Journal of the New York State Academy of Family Physicians, 8(3), 52–55.
  8. McKesson Health Solutions LLC. (2019). Alcohol Detox.
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