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Detox from Alcohol Safely

Detox vs Withdrawal

The terms “detox” and “withdrawal” from alcohol are often used interchangeably and refer to the process of the elimination of alcohol from the body once the drinker quits drinking. Withdrawal symptoms, or the effects of the elimination of alcohol from the system generally kick in around 8 hours or so after the last drink, and this is commonly called the detoxification process.

detoxing from alcoholHowever, strictly speaking or medically speaking, detox, or detoxification involves the drinker taking medication during the withdrawal phase in order to reduce or prevent many of the associated symptoms, and also to reduce the risk of more severe symptoms occurring such as seizures and delirium.

The most common form of medication used is benzodiazepine, which is a sedative or tranquiliser, and is prescribed and managed by your GP or by a specialist drug and alcohol team. This can be done under supervision at home, or by a short stay in hospital (5 to 7 days usually).

In terms of the process, it is very similar whether administered at home or in hospital – treatment starts with a relatively high dose of  benzodiazepine, taken on day 1 of the detox, with a reducing dose taken progressively over the next 5 to 7 days.

Hospitalisation may only be considered necessary where the risk of experiencing severe symptoms is high, or the patient does not have sufficient support to help them through the detox process at home.

Note that taking benzodiazepine does not help you stop drinking, in that it does not remove cravings for alcohol – it simply helps you to feel better during detox whilst your body readjusts to not having alcohol.

Do I need to Detox?

Many people choose to undergo withdrawal from alcohol without the help of medication, and manage to do so both safely and without too much discomfort, so taking additional medication is not always necessary.

However, the severity of the withdrawal symptoms experienced by each individual will vary according to factors such as how much they have been drinking and for how long; whether they have suffered adverse reactions to withdrawal in the past, and their previous medical and drug taking history amongst other things.

For these reasons it is essential that you consult with your GP before attempting any withdrawal program on your own, in order for him/her to assess your risks and to advise on the suitability of proceeding on your own.

It is most likely that you will be advised to cut down gradually over a period of time before stopping completely (the process of “tapering”), as this will lessen the severity of the withdrawal symptoms when you do finally quit.You are also likely to be prescribed vitamin B1 (thiamine), since this is often a common deficiency in heavy drinkers. A lack of this vitamin can cause alcohol induced brain damage.

Provided that you follow your GP’s advice, and you are given the all clear to undergo withdrawal without any medication, most likely the worst you will experience physically will be mild flu-like symptoms for a few days, although you should also expect to undergo some form of psychological withdrawal effects as well.

Withdrawal Symptoms

The following list contains the symptoms most commonly experienced during the withdrawal phase, and which occur from about 8 hours after your last drink and which last for approximately 3 to 5 days in most cases. You may find that you experience some, all or very few of these depending on your own personal circumstances.


  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Sweats / Night Sweats
  • Clammy skin
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Shaking hands and limbs
  • Breathlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling restless / agitated
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Feeling depressed
  • Cloudy thinking
  • Mild fever
  • Repetitive thoughts
  • A feeling of doom and despair
  • Itchy skin
  • Palpitations
  • Hallucinations
  • Convulsions
  • Seizures

 Preparing for withdrawal at home

At this point, if you have decided to undergo withdrawal from alcohol at home, and without the use of any medication, then it is assumed that you have consulted with your doctor. If not, please do not proceed any further until you have done so. This is not only to ensure that you are medically fit to do this on your own, but also to obtain advice and support as you go through the process.

The following are some hints and tips as to the best way to prepare for a home withdrawal and things to consider as you are going through the process.

Timing your withdrawal period

Withdrawal from alcoholIt sounds obvious, but you should try to pick a time for your withdrawal when you will have minimal outside distractions and when external stresses are at a minimum. You should prepare to effectively “hide away” for a few days as you get over the worst of the symptoms, so trying to do this while having family to stay or when taking part in a major work event is not a great idea.

It may seem that taking a holiday would be a good option, but often the psychological connotations of the word “holiday” mean letting go, having fun and of course, drinking. A better plan may be just to phone in sick for a few days – after all, this is legitimate, as you will be sick…

Ideally during this time you should be able to shut the door and not be disturbed, so it may be a good idea to let friends and relations know what your plans are. (See the section on disclosure if you are not sure about telling others your plans.)

Set a date

Set a date that you can plan for and work towards. Tomorrow is probably the most common day that most alcoholics are going to quit, and at the same time it is probably the most common day for the promise to be broken.

Setting a date at some point in the future allows you to plan for and create the space you will need, as well as preparing yourself physically by tapering your intake and taking vitamin supplements.


This is the process of gradually reducing your intake as you approach the quitting date. For instance, you may decrease the number of units you are drinking by 20% per week for the month leading up to quitting. This ensures that your body still receives enough alcohol to keep the withdrawal symptoms at bay while you are tapering, and should make the actual quitting process that much easier.

However, many drinkers find this difficult since they have become used to drinking a certain amount of alcohol to keep them optimally “topped up” and find any reduction to be almost as bad as cold turkey.

If you are not able to taper effectively, then at least try not to increase consumption or have a blow out as you approach the quitting day. This will only make your task more difficult.

Clear the decks

get rid of alcoholThis means that on the last drinking day, ensure you clear the house of any remaining alcohol. Even if it is stuff you wouldn’t normally drink. You want to remove any possible temptation, and make it as difficult as possible for you to get hold of alcohol during the withdrawal period. Tip it down the sink if you have to!

At the same time clear away any paraphernalia that you may associate with drinking, or which may remind you of drinking. Those supermarket leaflets with “3 for 2” offers on cases of beer, or the corkscrew on the bedside table for instance.

And definitely get rid of all those empty bottles!

Stock Up

Fill the fridge with healthy and tempting things to eat. You probably won’t feel like planning gourmet meals, but it’s important to have plenty of snacks on hand to graze on as you move through the withdrawal process. Get in plenty of water and any soft drinks that you like as well, since it is important that you stay well hydrated as you recover.

You may wish to ensure you have a supply of aspirin, paracetamol , or other regular pain killer to help alleviate some of the withdrawal symptoms.

And to replenish the blood sugar you would normally get from alcohol, you may find that chocolate can be a great comfort during this process.

Settle in

Plan how you will spend your time during the days and nights of the withdrawal process, which might seem long and tedious, as well as disorientating  at times. Get in some good movies, video games, magazines, or flick around on the tv or radio stations for programmes to occupy your mind.

Exit Strategy

And finally, plan your exit strategy. Whether it is an exercise plan, a diet and nutrition plan, a new hobby or whatever – what do you plan to do when the withdrawal period is over? How can you make the most of your new found freedom from alcohol, and what changes are you most looking forward to making in your new life?

Action point: Go through the suggested hints and tips above and make your own personal withdrawal plan. Write it down!


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