Medical Alcohol Detox Program

If you are considering or seeking treatment for an alcohol use disorder, you are not alone. Alcohol use disorder is, by far, the most common substance use disorder in the United States. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 83 million Americans engaged in excessive drinking in the past month, and 20 million met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Of those 20 million, about 2 million have sought treatment. Medical alcohol detox is often the first step in treatment for an alcohol use disorder.

This article will explain what medical alcohol detox is, why medical alcohol detox is important to complete, how a medically supervised detox works, which medications are used in a medical alcohol detox, who supervises an alcohol detox, where detox takes place, when a medical alcohol detox is appropriate and what follows the detox process.

What is a Medical Alcohol Detox?

“Detox” is short for detoxification – the process of eliminating harmful substances, or the toxic effects from those substances, from the body. “Medical detox” refers to detox performed under the guidance and supervision of a health professional or a healthcare team. Medical alcohol detox is the process of neutralizing the presence of alcohol or eliminating alcohol’s effect on the body. By itself, alcohol detox is not treatment for an alcohol use disorder. Detox addresses the physical symptoms of the body’s reliance on alcohol. Detox safely clears the way for focused recovery treatment to address the emotional, developmental and behavioral underpinnings of an addiction to alcohol, and for the treatment to create effective strategies for successfully and sustainably managing recovery from an alcohol use disorder.

Why is a Medical Alcohol Detox Important?

To understand why medical alcohol detox is a critical first step to treatment, it is important to understand what happens in your body when you drink alcohol in excess. When you engage in frequent or heavy drinking over time, your body responds to alcohol less and less actively. This effect is called tolerance, and it is a sign that your body now depends on the presence of alcohol to carry out its normal functions.

Having a dependence on alcohol means that when you do not have access to alcohol, your body goes through alcohol withdrawal. When alcohol withdrawal is severe enough, the body’s central command center may not be able to successfully control its temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, response to stress or motor functions. It is this loss of control that makes alcohol withdrawal dangerous and even fatal. Untreated severe alcohol withdrawal leads to seizures, delirium or death more than 10 percent of the time in some populations.

Medical alcohol detox greatly reduces the immediate possibility that alcohol withdrawal will become dangerous or deadly. Eventually, it will allow you to begin treatment for an alcohol use disorder without the physical burden of alcohol withdrawal, and studies show that treatment of alcohol use disorders is more successful when medical alcohol detox is completed.

How Does a Medical Alcohol Detox Work?

The first step in a medical alcohol detox is an examination by a medical professional to determine if you are in alcohol withdrawal, and, if so, the level of severity of the alcohol withdrawal. The examiner will get to know your needs and your history, perform a routine physical examination and record the results.

Depending on the severity of withdrawal, the examiner then may work with you to prescribe medications that help lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms. If you are being prescribed medications to help reduce the symptoms of withdrawal, you may be required to stay in a facility or hospital for a time so that the withdrawal and your response to the medication can be monitored. If not, you may be able to undergo a less rigorous form of detox alongside your first days of treatment. Once alcohol withdrawal is successfully addressed through a medical alcohol detox, a medical professional may prescribe medication that helps reduce alcohol cravings, if you and your provider deem this appropriate.

Which Medications are Used in Medical Alcohol Detox?

Since the presence of alcohol withdrawal means that your body has become physically dependent on alcohol to properly function, a medical alcohol detox may require medication to safely replace alcohol until the body can resume normal functioning. In cases of severe alcohol withdrawal, where disastrous consequences are possible without medical intervention, a stricter regimen with regularly scheduled medications is required for successful detox.

The most commonly used medications to treat alcohol withdrawal are controlled doses of sedatives like chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Valium) or lorazepam (Ativan). These medications are used only under limited, short-term circumstances and are reduced as soon as safely possible, but they can be used alongside other medications that can help address alcohol withdrawal symptoms. More mild cases of alcohol withdrawal may involve only supportive medications (such as ibuprofen for headache, or use of a safe sleep aid) and medical monitoring.

After withdrawal is successfully addressed with medical alcohol detox, you may have ongoing cravings for alcohol. Fortunately, medications like naltrexone, acamprosate and disulfiram have been shown in studies to help reduce these cravings, and you and your medical team will collaboratively discuss if such medications are the right choice for you.

Who Supervises a Medical Alcohol Detox?

Medical alcohol detox is usually supervised by a physician with experience in addiction treatment. The physician may be part of a larger medical team that can include a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant, nursing staff, therapists and behavioral health technicians.

When is a Medical Alcohol Detox Appropriate?

Medical alcohol detox is the primary preventative step for reducing the risk for severe consequences from alcohol withdrawal, so this type of detox is important to begin when your body has shown signs of being physically dependent on the presence of alcohol. Even if your body has not demonstrated these signs a thorough examination by a medical professional can help determine if you could benefit from medical alcohol detox.

Where Should a Medical Alcohol Detox Take Place?

Since the consequences of severe untreated alcohol withdrawal can be devastating or even fatal, medical alcohol detox should take place in a licensed treatment facility or in a hospital. A treatment facility that provides medical alcohol detox should have on-site nursing staff experienced in watching for signs of alcohol withdrawal and a readily accessible medical professional who can make adjustments to a treatment plan to ensure the best possible start to your recovery.

What Follows a Medical Alcohol Detox?

Your treatment begins immediately after medical detox from alcohol. In treatment, you will work with expertly trained, compassionate therapists on uncovering the root causes of addictive thinking patterns and behavior, and you will work with them to develop new strategies for handling triggers, addressing vulnerabilities, promoting self-awareness and providing accountability. If a co-occurring mental health condition is present, along with the substance use disorder — this is often referred to as “dual diagnosis” — the therapist will help you effectively address it. Your relationship with the therapist is among the most critical components of your recovery, so every effort will be made to make sure you get the best possible fit for your needs.

At the Recovery Village, we know how important it is to support your recovery. Our model of detox and treatment is geared to maximize your potential to be successful in your recovery journey. Our highly trained staff will support you from your first communication with us. Take the first step in your recovery by contacting us about medical alcohol detox and treatment today.


Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village Columbus aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.