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Updated on April 14, 2022

Alcohol Detox: Effects, Timeline & Diet

People with alcohol use disorder (AUD) may experience withdrawal when abstaining from alcohol. The discomfort that follows can drive one to relapse. Some symptoms can even be fatal.

Detoxing with proper supervision can prevent a relapse.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Timeline

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can begin in as little as six hours after the last drink and last up to 72 hours.

Stage 1 (6 to 12 hours):

  • Tremors
  • Headaches
  • Mild anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Upset stomach

Stage 2 (12-24 hours):

  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Nightmares
  • Mental fog
  • Vomiting

Stage 3 (48-72 hours):

  • Visual hallucinations
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Nausea
  • Impaired attention span

In a minority of circumstances, a person at this stage may also experience Delirium tremens (DT). This is a form of temporary psychosis which is potentially fatal.

Possible DT symptoms include:

  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Occasional hallucinations
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Fever
  • Sweating

About half of people with AUD experience withdrawal when they stop drinking. Roughly 3 to 5 percent experience severe symptoms like Delirium tremens.3

a 2014 article in the New England Journal of Medicine

Delirium Tremens Risk Factors

Factors that increase a person’s risk for DT include:

  • Being of older age
  • Liver function
  • Previous occurrences of DTs
  • History of seizures during detox
  • Platelet counts
  • Potassium levels
  • Sodium levels
  • Dehydration
  • Brain lesions

Anyone at risk for DTs should detox from alcohol at a properly equipped medical facility.

Medication

Medication becomes necessary when a person has moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms.

Examples of withdrawal medications include:

  • Benzodiazepines to reduce the risk of seizures
  • Neuroleptic medications to depress the nervous system to prevent seizures and agitation
  • Nutritional support (supplemental vitamins, etc.) to reduce withdrawal symptoms and correct nutritional deficiencies

Additional symptoms such as high blood pressure can be treated with medications specific to that condition.

After the initial symptoms ease, doctors may prescribe medications to curb a person’s desire to drink.

These might include:

  • Antabuse (disulfiram) to reduce alcohol cravings and nausea after consumption of alcohol
  • ReVia (naltrexone) to reduce alcohol cravings and block opioid receptors in the body
  • Topamax (topiramate) to potentially reduce alcohol consumption and extend periods of abstinence

Medicinal therapies are most beneficial when used in combination with support groups and counseling.

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Alcohol Detox Diet

Getting enough fluids and nutrients is crucial to a successful detox.

An alcohol detox diet might include:

Hydrating

Alcohol is dehydrating. Dehydration also enhances the negative symptoms of detox.

Staying hydrated flushes toxins from your system and helps ward off:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Overall feelings of sluggishness and cloudy thinking

It might be difficult to keep food down. Soups and broths provide sustenance without being too heavy and help with hydration.

Nutritional Supplements

Most alcoholics have vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Doctors often recommend those going through alcohol detox consume nutritional supplements such as:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K

Eat a Balanced Diet

As your appetite returns, it’s important to eat a balanced diet. This includes vegetables and fruits, lean protein, whole grains, and healthy fats.

A balanced diet helps reduce cravings and feel your best.

Sugar cravings can be a problem during alcohol detox because of the high sugar content in alcohol. Once you stop drinking, your body craves the sugar you are no longer consuming.

Many detox and treatment programs offer nutritional guidance and help with creating a customized healthy diet. Eating healthy can speed up recovery and make the transition to sobriety easier.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

Here are some of the best treatments for AUD:

Inpatient Programs

Inpatient treatment is the most intensive and effective option for alcohol addiction treatment. These programs usually last 30, 60, or 90 days. They may be longer in some cases.

Throughout an inpatient program, you'll live on-site in a safe, substance-free environment. You'll go through medically supervised detox first, then behavioral therapy. Other services may be added to your regimen.

Many of these treatment programs assist you with an aftercare program afterward.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

PHPs are the second most intensive alcohol addiction programs. They're sometimes called intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). PHPs provide comparable services to inpatient programs.

These services may include:

  • Detox
  • Medical services
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Support groups
  • Other holistic or custom treatments

The main difference between PHPs and inpatient programs is that you return home and sleep at your house during a partial hospitalization program.

Some PHPs provide food and transportation. This varies by program.

PHPs are ideal for new patients and those who have completed an inpatient program and still require intensive treatment.

Outpatient Programs

Outpatient programs are less intensive than inpatient programs and PHPs. They're best for people who are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Patients usually have responsibilities at work, home, or school.

These programs customize your treatment sessions around your schedule.

Outpatient programs may be part of aftercare once a patient completes an inpatient program or PHP.

Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT)

Certain people qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Some medications can assist you throughout detox and withdrawal. Others can reduce cravings and normalize your bodily functions.

The most common medications used to treat AUD are:

  • Disulfiram (Antabuse)
  • Acamprosate (Campral)
  • Naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol)

MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery if combined with other therapies.

Support Groups

Support groups are peer-led organizations made of people dedicated to helping each other stay sober. They can be the first step towards sobriety or part of an aftercare plan.

Many of these programs follow the 12-step approach.

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Resources

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  1. Alcohol and Nutrition - Alcohol Alert No. 22- 1993.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Oct. 2000.
  2. Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol Scale | Study.Com.” Study.Com, 2020.
  3. Schuckit, Marc A. “Recognition and Management of Withdrawal Delirium (Delirium Tremens).” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 371, no. 22, 2014, pp. 2109–2113., https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmra1407298. Rahman A, Paul M. "Delirium Tremens. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL)": StatPearls Publishing, 2021.
  4. Dugdale, David C. “Alcohol Withdrawal: Medlineplus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2021.
  5. Berger, Fred K. “Substance Use Recovery and Diet: Medlineplus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2020.

Related Pages

Alcohol Addiction Resources

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Addiction Treatment

Drug Treatment Programs

Detox Process

Inpatient Detox

Alcohol Detox: Effects, Timeline & Diet

Addiction Treatment