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What Is Inpatient Alcohol Detox Like Exactly?

86 percent of adults in the U.S. have taken a drink containing alcohol at some point in their lives. For most of them, it didn’t cause any problems. But for the 14.8 million people with an alcohol use disorder, even one drink is too many. 

Some alcohol drinkers are able to reduce their consumption or stop altogether. Others need help to get sober and stay sober. Many of them undergo inpatient alcohol detox as a first step. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration tracks how many people were admitted to treatment facilities. Its data shows that in 2015 more than 1.5 million people sought inpatient treatment for substance abuse, 34 percent of those admissions were for alcohol treatment. 

We’ll take a closer look at what happens during inpatient alcohol detox, and why it’s such a critical step in the healing process.

What Is Detox?

Detox is short for detoxification. It’s the process by which the body gets rid of alcohol. The definition of detox may be fairly simple, but the process is not. 

Anyone who regularly consumes a lot of alcohol and who wants to detox should consider doing so under medical supervision. While a casual or social drinker may easily stop, someone with alcohol dependency can suffer uncomfortable and even fatal side-effects.

Alcohol Withdrawal

When someone who drinks alcohol regularly and is dependent on it suddenly stops, they may develop withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms may look like what some people call a “hangover”, but they’re much more serious.

Within 6-24 hours after their last drink, the alcohol-dependent person begins to experience symptoms like:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Shaking

Withdrawal symptoms can start even if the person still has alcohol in their blood, especially if they’re used to consuming large amounts every day. Withdrawal happens when a person’s brain begins to compensate for the lack of alcohol.

Alcohol is a sedative, so it slows down the function of the brain. Since a person who is dependent on alcohol drinks consistently, the brain is continually exposed to alcohol. It compensates for the sedating effects of alcohol by over-producing chemicals to stimulate it. When the alcohol is removed, the brain stays in that hyper-stimulated state.

Life-Threatening Withdrawal 

Withdrawal symptoms can be fatal in someone who has used and abused alcohol over a long period. The symptoms are far worse than what a social drinker might experience after having too many drinks one, rare night.

Severe alcohol withdrawal can cause:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nightmares
  • Uncontrolled vomiting
  • Delirium tremens (DT’s)
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Severe dehydration

These symptoms can be fatal without medical intervention. Alcohol withdrawal may be even worse for someone who has been a heavy drinker for years or who has a high blood alcohol level when they stop. 

Inpatient Alcohol Detox

Detoxing from alcohol under the supervision of medical personnel can provide both life-saving interventions in the event of an emergency and medications to help ease the worst of the symptoms. Detoxing should not be done at home.

So, what happens during alcohol detox? The first step is an initial evaluation. A staff member will take the patient’s blood pressure, check for signs of dehydration, and test for the presence of alcohol in the blood and urine.

The patient will also be asked a series of questions to determine their alcohol use. This information will help medical personnel evaluate the patient’s level of dependency and the severity of withdrawal symptoms.  

While every patient is different, the detox process generally lasts for three to seven days. The patient will be closely monitored to make sure they don’t experience life-threatening seizures or convulsions.

A doctor may prescribe medications to prevent the most serious complications and help the patient feel more comfortable during the process. Some of these medications may include:

  • Benzodiazepines. These are a class of anti-anxiety medications that are used to prevent seizures, convulsions, and DT’s. Common names are Librium and Ativan. 
  • Anticonvulsants. These may also be prescribed to prevent seizures.
  • Antipsychotics. These are used to prevent delusions and hallucinations. 

There are several options for inpatient alcohol detox. The most common are:

  • Hospitals. Patients experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms and who have pre-existing medical issues may be best served in a hospital setting initially. For example, patients with underlying cardiac issues will need constant monitoring. 
  • Medical detox clinics. Patients who check into a clinic are also provided 24-hour care and monitoring specific to their alcohol withdrawal symptoms. They stay at the clinic during detox, typically for less than a week. 
  • Substance abuse treatment facilities. Many treatment centers provide a medical detox at the beginning of a patient’s stay. Patients are typically cared for in a separate facility where they can be monitored around the clock and given medications to keep them comfortable and control their withdrawal symptoms. Once they’re finished with the detox, they’re moved into the main facility for the rest of their stay.

Someone with alcohol dependency issues should understand that medical detox is only the first step in the treatment process. Untreated alcohol abuse can cause permanent physical, mental, emotional, and legal issues.

Long-Term Issues

Alcohol abuse can eventually cause health problems that can be life-threatening. Pancreatitis is a painful condition that can be fatal if not treated. Symptoms can include severe stomach pain and vomiting.

Alcohol abuse has also been implicated in some cancers. Alcohol use accounts for about 6 percent of all cancers and 4 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States.

Chronic alcohol use can also cause significant legal issues. 29 people in the U.S. die every day in car crashes involving a drunk driver and 1.5 million people are arrested every year for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

Choosing the Right Facility

You’ll want to choose the right facility for inpatient alcohol detox for you or for someone you love. Some important to questions to ask as you evaluate your options are:

  • Is the center close to home where family and friends can visit, if appropriate?
  • What is the facility’s treatment success rate?
  • Does the facility take insurance and will your policy cover detox?
  • Is any after-care provided?

Our highly-skilled and compassionate counselors are happy to answer any questions you have about your treatment options. Please call or email us at any time.