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Inpatient Detox for Alcohol

For many people struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or whom have otherwise developed significant alcohol dependence as a result of chronic heavy drinking, quitting can be a challenge. In addition to the difficulty of changing often longstanding, compulsive patterns of alcohol use, the detox period may also give rise to unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and severe health risks.

However, the detox process can be made safer and less uncomfortable for those in early recovery. Inpatient medical detox programs offer supportive care, close monitoring, and, when needed, medical intervention to reduce the risk of painful or life-threatening symptoms.

Inpatient detox facilities help to guide individuals through the process and customize a plan for treatment—from detox to follow-up support—that will give the person the best opportunity to achieve recovery and avoid relapse in the future.

What Is Inpatient Alcohol Detox?

Inpatient medical detox allows the body to rid itself of the influence of alcohol in a comfortable, controlled environment. Detox gradually restores balance and eases the brain and body back to functioning without the need for alcohol. This can be achieved through a variety of methods, either alone or in combination, including:

  • Specific medications to mitigate the risks of severe withdrawal and/or withdrawal complications.
  • Nutritional support and physical exercise to promote early recovery.
  • Psychological and behavioral counseling and support.

When a person with significant levels of physical alcohol dependence decides to quit drinking, medical supervision is critical to ensuring their safety and comfort. Alcohol’s withdrawal symptoms can include extremely unpleasant and/or life-threatening side effects such as agitation and seizures, which may require pharmacologic intervention to safely manage.

One particularly severe manifestation of the acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome is called delirium tremens (DTs),3 which may result in profound mental status changes and life-threatening seizures. Decreasing the likelihood of these and certain other severe withdrawal symptoms is a primary goal of medical detox.

Do I Need Inpatient Medical Detox?

The level of withdrawal management and intensity of care needed when detoxing from alcohol varies based on the magnitude of physical dependence and other individual addiction issues. Though it is not easy to precisely predict the course of any given individual’s acute withdrawal experience, some people may be at more risk than others.

For example, people with a history of multiple past alcohol withdrawals, or serious withdrawal symptoms such as seizures or delirium tremens (DTs) may be at risk of having similarly complicated withdrawal experiences again. In cases such as these, having the medical supervision and support afforded by an inpatient program can ensure the safest and most comfortable detox process. With an inpatient alcohol detox program, a person is admitted to a facility where their progress is continuously monitored by the treatment staff and appropriate medical care is administered as needed.

Why Choose Inpatient Detox Programs?

A few reasons to consider choosing an inpatient detox center include:

  • Medical staff on hand: There is a certain level of risk involved with ceasing alcohol consumption, particularly if the person has developed severe physiological dependence. Because withdrawal symptoms can include agitation, fever, seizures, and hallucinations, having on-call medical staff nearby is essential should the situation become life-threatening.
  • Closed environment: Getting away from an environment that promotes or triggers alcohol use is an important step in working toward recovery. Because relapse occurs in 40-60% of adults in recovery,4 having a controlled atmosphere while detoxing can be helpful in managing cravings and triggers that lead to drinking.
  • Increased focus on recovery: The relatively closed environment of an inpatient treatment facility also allows the person to place more focus on his or her recovery. A person in an outpatient program might still have to contend with certain stressors, daily commitments and other factors that could interfere with recovery.

If unsure whether a person’s drinking constitutes a need for a inpatient detox, it may be worth discussing treatment options with a doctor or other medical professional to best gauge the appropriate level of care.

What Medications Are Used in Inpatient Detox?

A variety of medications may be used to manage acute alcohol withdrawal. These medications help relieve symptoms of withdrawal and chemical imbalances in the body and include:

  • Benzodiazepines: These substances, which include common medications like Valium (diazepam) and Ativan (lorazepam), are used to stabilize a person during detoxification by muting the temporary tendency toward excitatory neural signaling associated with acute alcohol withdrawal. Unlike alcohol itself, they provide an opportunity to safely and reliably taper dosage to ease the body’s reaction to loss of the substance.7
  • Barbiturates: These substances act similarly to benzodiazepines; however, they are potentially more problematic (and consequently, less frequently utilized) because overdose can occur at low doses and response to these medications can be unpredictable.7
  • Other supportive medications: There is some research evidence that gabapentin may help to correct some of the physiologic imbalances that arise during alcohol withdrawal, thereby easing certain symptoms (e.g., alcohol-related insomnia, dysphoria).8 Over-the-counter medications, such as Tylenol or Pepto-Bismol, can also help with some milder symptoms.

Inpatient Detox versus Outpatient Detox

For inpatient alcohol detox, you live at the treatment center for the length of treatment and get 24-hour care and support. In contrast, for outpatient alcohol detox, you attend set appointments during the week while still living at home. Outpatient detox may be a good fit for people with mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms who are not at risk for withdrawal complications.5 A doctor or licensed addiction professional can help you assess your risks.

What Happens after Alcohol Detox?

Because alcohol use disorder is a chronic issue, a period of treatment followed by consistent, longer-term recovery efforts help many to avoid relapse and maintain a life of sobriety. Beyond detoxification—which is only the first step in a sometimes-lifelong process—further addiction treatment can provide the tools, skills, support, and resources to help the individual learn to better manage cravings, avoid triggers, and react to stressors without returning to alcohol use and abuse. Both inpatient and outpatient treatment facilities can help an individual work toward recovery through a mix of behavioral therapies, motivational tools, peer support, and addiction-related education.

It can be hard and even dangerous to quit drinking on your own. But it’s never too late to ask for help, and a professional inpatient detox center can help you recover in a safe environment. If you’re ready to stop drinking and start healing, we can help. American Addiction Centers (AAC) offers evidence-based alcohol detox services in locations across the country. Call or text us to learn more about your options and start your recovery today.

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