Once your body develops a dependency on a substance, coming off of it can not only be a difficult process mentally, but can also take a toll on your body.
Withdrawal symptoms are common and—in rare instances—can be severe or even fatal. This is why care should always be taken, especially if completely stopping alcohol after regular long-term use.
While withdrawal may seem unpleasant and perhaps frightening, it’s important to break your body’s dependency as early as possible to limit the long-term effects of heavy drinking.
If you suffer from alcohol dependency, when detoxing you should seek medical supervision. While home detoxing may be a safe option for some, it’s best to make sure that you have friends or family check on you during the process. Be sure to speak to a medical professional in advance of your planned detox as well.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics of what it means to carry out an alcohol detox at home, as well as everything you need to be aware of if your doctor agrees this is a safe method for you.
What Is an Alcohol Detox?
As with many substances that alter a person’s physical or mental state, regular use of alcohol can result in dependency.
The body adjusts to the effects of the substance after years—or even a few months—of heavy and/or regular use. Detox, or withdrawal, is the adjustment which takes place when this substance is no longer present.1
Alcohol acts as a depressant. When someone drinks, the body reacts by altering the response of specific receptors in the person’s brain.
When alcohol is no longer present in the body, the neurotransmitters that have adapted to the presence of alcohol will continue to take time to bounce back, leading to symptoms of withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms can vary in severity depending on how much and how often someone drinks, as well as their unique body chemistry. Over a million people are admitted yearly to the hospital or rehab facilities due to severe complications of withdrawal.
In extreme cases, seizures, hallucinations, or delirium tremens can result. The severity of symptoms is influenced not only by a person’s history of alcohol use, but also by genetics, health, age, and body-related factors. It’s even possible that some people with alcohol use disorder will not experience any symptoms at all!
The Process and Stages of Alcohol Detoxification
Initial symptoms can appear within hours of alcohol being absent from the body, and tend to be mild to moderate. These include cravings for alcohol, insomnia, tremors, loss of appetite, anxiety, irritation, vivid dreams, nausea, headaches, and sweating.
These initial symptoms can last anywhere from several hours to a few days. For some, these mild to moderate symptoms may continue for up to a week and never progress to the stages below.
More severe symptoms can set in after a day or two without alcohol. The most common are hallucinations and seizures.
Auditory, visual, or tactical hallucinations can occur even though the person is generally aware of their surroundings and fully conscious. This can lead to fear and paranoia. While not common, people should be aware of this possible side effect, to prepare themselves if it does happen.
Seizures can occur even when the person has had no other symptoms up until this point. Usually, the person will experience one episode only, which includes a brief loss of consciousness along with arm or leg spasms. If a second episode occurs, it will most likely happen within six hours of the first.2
Withdrawal symptoms can continue for up to a week before they start to taper off. For most, the most severe will occur around three to five days without alcohol. This is also the stage that is most dangerous for those detoxing from alcohol, and when fatal complications can occur.
Delirium tremens (DTs) can also occur around this third day mark. This is rare and tends to occur in long-term, heavy drinkers. Symptoms include fever, rapid heartbeat, severe agitation, and high blood pressure.
Anyone experiencing symptoms of DTs should have medical supervision, as complications can be fatal.
After a week, symptoms should taper off—though some may still be present for up to a month.
Some people may experience mild symptoms such as low mood, anxiety, and insomnia for up to a year after detoxing. This is called post-acute withdrawal syndrome, and while the symptoms are typically mild, they are very common.3 Some medications and forms of therapy have been shown to help manage these symptoms.
Can You Do an Alcohol Detox at Home?
It’s important to always consult your doctor before considering a detox, especially if you plan to do it at home.
There are many factors to consider when deciding if doing a detox at home is safe, and your doctor can look at your specific history, overall health, genetics, and other factors to help you decide what’s best for you.
Schedule a private call with a Ria Health team member and we can help you get started.
How Is It Different from a Medically-Supervised Alcohol Detox?
A medically-supervised alcohol detox is the safest way to come off alcohol dependence. A medical professional will be able to monitor you for any complications, respond to any severe side effects, and help to manage your symptoms with medical treatment.
Rehab centers—both online and brick-and-mortar—can provide additional support. This can include personal therapy, group counseling, and activities. Patients may feel more accountable being in a supportive environment and sharing the experience with others.
One of the biggest concerns someone may have about a medical detox is the cost. For many without insurance coverage, it’s simply not possible.
However, those people shouldn’t feel discouraged about their ability to overcome their addiction, as the risks of continued alcohol abuse are often much higher than that of detoxing. There are also online options—such as Ria—who are able to provide cheaper long-term support. Medical supervision during your detox period, followed by free AA or SMART meetings, is another more affordable pathway.
The Risks of Doing an Alcohol Detox at Home
Doing an alcohol detox at home does carry some risks, as there is a chance of serious side effects. In rare cases, a person can have a heart attack or stroke while detoxing, which can be deadly.
While risks for a young, otherwise healthy person with a shorter history of alcohol abuse may be lower, consulting a doctor first is always a good idea, and supervision throughout the process is recommended.4
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary in their severity.
Mild symptoms may include:
- Cravings for alcohol
- Loss of appetite
- Vivid dreams
- Excessive sweating
More severe symptoms may include:
- Blood pressure changes
- Rapid heart rate
If you experience any of the above severe symptoms, you should seek medical assistance immediately.
How to Best Prepare for an Alcohol Detox at Home
Consult a Medical Professional First
Before you begin your detox, get in touch with a medical professional. If you aren’t able to do this in person, you could consider going through a telemedicine service.
Once you’ve discussed your situation with your doctor, you’ll want to make a plan to detox together. Cutting down on alcohol gradually, or tapering off, is a highly recommended method for detoxing. Harvard Medical School suggests setting a drinking goal, putting it in writing, and then keeping a diary (sometimes called a “drink log”) to monitor your consumption.
Have a Safety Plan and People You Can Call
Make a list of trusted friends and family you can rely on, should you need them. Put this list somewhere obvious, like on the fridge or by your computer.
It’s important to be prepared, so make sure you make a safety plan and go over it with the people on your list. You may even want to give them physical copies—in times of emergency it can be very helpful to have a list or guidelines to follow.
Prep Your Space
You should either remove or relocate any alcohol in your home for the best possible result. If you’re able, lock it away so that you aren’t tempted to give in to any cravings. Be sure to stock up on food and medicine and have a variety of distracting activities available within easy reach.
It’s also important to take time off from work or responsibilities while detoxing. Detoxing can take a significant amount of time and will be made much easier if you dedicate your focus to it.
Consider Withdrawal Medication
Some people can benefit from various medications, designed to help you through the withdrawal process. However, you should be aware that you must have supervision while taking these.
Benzodiazepines, drugs that help reduce anxiety and are often prescribed for detoxing, can be habit-forming for people who drink too much. At Ria, we often prescribe gabapentin, a drug originally designed for preventing seizures. It is well tolerated and has less risk for addiction.
The Pros & Cons of Doing an Alcohol Detox at Home
- A more comfortable and familiar environment
- Support of loved ones around you.
- More risk if a severe complication occurs
- Less professional support on-hand to manage symptoms
- The person may be more tempted to break the detox at home (easier access to alcohol)
- The home environment may be a place of stress for some with addiction, and they would do better removing themselves from this environment.
How Long Does Detoxing from Alcohol Take?
Reducing alcohol should be done gradually, and opinions differ on exactly how long that should be. A person should expect four to five days after the last drink to detox properly. However, PAWS (post acute withdrawal syndrome) can still occur weeks, months, or even years later.5
Strategies for reducing alcohol over time include changing the amount of liquor in drinks or switching to less appealing drinks. Experts recommend that a gradual, controlled tapering off of alcohol is the safest method, as most heavy drinkers cannot simply stop cold without risks. However, how long this takes will depend on how much you drink and how quickly you taper.
The Best Tips for Doing an Alcohol Detox at Home
Focus on Hydration
Drink plenty of water while detoxing, but also have sweet drinks to help deal with the possibility of hypoglycemia. Sipping on electrolyte-filled drinks (such as sports drinks) throughout the day can help to make sure you’re well-hydrated, as well as keep your blood sugar and electrolytes at a good level.
Have a Balanced, Nutrient-Dense Diet
Eating small and frequent meals with plenty of protein from fish, eggs, and vegetables is recommended. While your appetite may feel low, it’s important to eat well to help with the symptoms of the detox.
Take Your Vitamins and Minerals
A multivitamin can help with your recovery. It’s particularly important to take a thiamine supplement. Thiamine helps the body to convert food into energy, and deficiencies are common after periods of alcohol use disorder.6
What Else Should I Know About Detoxing at Home?
When you quit drinking, your body will try to compensate for the lack of alcohol. For heavy drinkers this could mean withdrawal symptoms, which can be severe.
We’ll say it over and over: even if you’re detoxing at home, you should alert your doctor. Yes, some people can go through the process with little to no effect. But for others, suddenly stopping drinking can be dangerous.
In addition to a proper, balanced diet, vitamins (including thiamine) can help your body stabilize while it’s adjusting to not having alcohol.
Finally, always make sure to drink lots of water! Keeping hydrated is a good idea, no matter what you’re doing, but particularly when your body is going through the stress of withdrawal.
Getting Back to Normal
If you have severe alcohol dependency issues, be sure to consult with a medical professional before you start the detox process. This is especially important if you plan on detoxing at home.
However, for those with mild to moderate alcohol use disorder looking to taper off or detox at home safely, Ria can help. Our telemedicine-based methods mean that you don’t even have to leave your house—the advice of medical professionals is just a call away.
We’ll work with you, whether your goal is to get off alcohol completely or cut down to a more moderate level.
Getting back to normal isn’t impossible—and now’s a great time to do it. Just be sure to exercise care in the process and get the support of your medical professional, friends, family, and after-care specialists.