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How to Safely Navigate Alcohol Detox and Get the Help You Need

October 12, 2018

The consumption of alcohol dates back to nearly the beginning of time. In fact, according to National Geographic, humans have been consuming alcohol in one form or another for nearly 10,000 years. Alcohol is not only widely consumed, it’s also socially acceptable—often the norm in almost all social settings. For these reasons, knowing when you or someone you love has a problem with alcohol abuse and needs help can be challenging.

It’s important to first understand what alcoholism and alcohol addiction look like.  Despite the increase in awareness and education, many people continue to have certain stigmas and images associated with alcoholism and an alcoholic. One of the most common misperceptions is that a person with an alcohol problem is homeless, jobless, friendless, drinking from a bottle in a paper bag under an overpass in the bad section of a city. While this can be an accurate picture of some, it is far from how most alcoholics live.

In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) countries with higher income levels have the highest level of alcohol consumption per capita as well as the greatest prevalence of heavy episode drinking or binge drinking. Let’s look at what alcoholism and alcohol use disorders are.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) reports that in 2014 there were 139.7 million alcohol users in the United States alone, of these 17 million met the criteria for having an alcohol use disorder. Excessive alcohol use is defined by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as having five or more drinks on one occasion for men and four or more drinks on one occasion for women.

Alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing progressive brain disease that is characterized by compulsive alcohol use, the inability to control amount of alcohol consumed, and a negative emotional state when not using alcohol. However, most people who drink don’t start off at this stage. Alcohol consumption usually starts off innocently, with the person not knowing where it will lead. For those with an alcohol problem, the path at some point becomes marked with pain, turmoil, and isolation. But there is hope and help for anyone suffering with an alcohol issue. You are not alone.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism
It’s important to know what to look for if you suspect you or someone you love has a problem with alcohol.  Since drinking alcohol is so common, what is actually a problem can often be overlooked as ‘having a good time’ or a person who just ‘likes to party.’ Make no mistake, however, if someone is truly an alcoholic, at some point their drinking will transform from simply ‘having fun’ to a daily need and obsession.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your own drinking or that of a loved one.

Have you or your loved one ever:
•    Drank more than you planned on one or more occasions?
•    Tried to stop drinking for a period of time (a week, two weeks, a month, etc.) but been unable to stick to it?
•    Attempted to cut down on how much you drink at a single occasion but been unsuccessful?
•    Planned activities around drinking?
•    Spent a significant amount of time drinking?
•    Found yourself sick or with a hangover from drinking?
•    Let your responsibilities go because of drinking? Family, work, school, etc.
•    Continued to drink despite problems with family, friends, loved ones, work, school, etc.?
•    Experienced legal issues when or as a result of drinking?
•    Decreased time spent with family or friends so you could drink?
•    Hid how much you drink or isolated while drinking so others wouldn’t know how much you drink?
•    Stopped or decreased time spent on hobbies and other activities you enjoyed?
•    Experienced strong desire or cravings for alcohol?
•    Started to have to drink more alcohol on an occasion to get the same effect?
•    Lied about your drinking?
•    Continued to drink despite physical and mental health issues arising?
•    Compromised your values, ethics, or found yourself engaging in risk taking while drinking?
•    Experienced blackouts or periods of time you can’t remember where you were or what you did while drinking alcohol?

If you (or your loved one) can answer yes to one or more of these questions, you may have a problem with alcohol. Living this way is painful but the good news is there is hope and help. Despite the millions of people struggling with alcoholism there are also millions who have found the help they need and are living happy lives in recovery. You can too.

Three Stages of Alcoholism
When you are taking an honest look at your own drinking or that of a loved one, it’s vital to know there are three stages of alcoholism. Each of these stages is progressive and characterized by different symptoms. Getting help for alcohol issues in the earlier stages is ideal so it’s critical to understand what each stage looks like. But no matter what stage you find yourself (or loved one) in, recovery is always possible with the right support and treatment center.

Stage 1: Early Stage of Alcoholism
This stage can be difficult to determine if there is a problem for a number of reasons. At this point the person may not be experiencing many of the symptoms typically associated with alcoholism. Many of the telltale signs at this stage are socially related. At this stage a tolerance is being developed so it may be hard to determine definitively if there is an issue with alcohol. Look for subtle signs such as missing work or school on occasion, skipping out on responsibilities, drinking more on a single occasion than in the past, or drinking more often.

Stage 2: Middle Stage of Alcoholism
This second stage of alcoholism can manifest with more physical issues as well as increased social problems. Blackouts, vomiting, extreme hangovers may now occur. Cravings for alcohol or withdrawal when not drinking or trying to stop unsuccessfully also characterize this second stage. Emotional issues may begin to show or appear more consistently. During this stage, the person in question may begin to know they have an issue and begin to hide their drinking from family and friends.

Stage 3: Late or End Stage of Alcoholism
The last stage of alcoholism is often what people think of when they imagine what an alcoholic looks like. If help is not received at this stage, the outcome is often grim.  In this stage, a person’s physical appearance and hygiene and general health significantly decline. Jobs are lost, friendships and family relationships gone, and often isolation is the norm. Those who do work often jump from job to job often to make enough money to buy more alcohol. Serious physical issues may show now too, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, hepatitis, and respiratory issues are all health issues occurring at this stage.

If you or someone you love has entered this final stage of alcoholism it’s vital to not only get help, but to be sure to obtain medical advice and supervision in order to safely detox from alcohol. When the body has become physically dependent on alcohol, stopping drinking ‘cold turkey’ can have very serious—and even fatal—physical consequences.

Taking the Next Step—Alcohol Detox

As mentioned above, detoxing from alcohol on your own can be not only very difficult but also deadly. Detoxing on one’s own can also increase the risk for relapse. The symptoms associated with the detox can be so excruciating that the person trying to stop drinking thinks they can’t get through it and drinks again to ease the pain, both physical and mental.

For these reasons, it’s highly recommended that anyone who wants to stop drinking seek out an alcohol detox program or alcohol detox center to take this first, vital step towards freedom from addiction to alcohol. In fact, it is not suggested that a person try to stop drinking, no matter what stage of alcoholism they are in, without medical care.

Most treatment centers that offer alcohol detox also have inpatient and/or outpatient treatment programs which can, and should, follow the initial detox. Since the detox process can be excruciating, both physically and emotionally, there tends to be bond formed between the person going through alcohol detox and the staff. Usually the team working with the person during the detox will continue to support during the rest of the treatment program. According to Psychology today, this can prove very beneficial for recovery.

What is Alcohol Detox?
Alcohol detox is the first step to quitting drinking and living a life in recovery. Although the prospect of undertaking this path may seem daunting, there are thousands like you who have successfully navigated this road with help and found freedom from alcohol addiction.

Knowing what to expect during this process of alcohol detox or alcohol withdrawal can be helpful in successfully navigating it. Just as each person has a different biological makeup and their drinking history varies, so does the exact withdrawal process. However, there are some characteristics to be expected.

The heavier and longer the drinking has been, the more severe the withdrawal symptoms are. When a person’s body has become addicted to alcohol or another substance and this substance is suddenly absent from the body, the brain, body, and blood can go into shock.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Again, depending on each individual and their specific circumstances surrounding alcohol consumption the symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal will vary. The following are the most common:
•    Anxiety
•    Depression
•    Extreme tiredness or fatigue
•    Vomiting
•    Nausea
•    Agitation or irritability
•    Excessive sweating
•    Shakiness
•    Mood swings and emotional outbursts
•    Extreme dehydration
•    Rapid heart rate
•    Alcoholic tremors
•    Delirium Tremens (DTs)
•    Seizures

Generally, just like the three stages of alcoholism, there are three stages of alcohol withdrawal. Each of these stages is characterized by different withdrawal symptoms.

Three Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal
Stage One:
This first phase of withdrawal is characterized by acute symptoms. Usually occurring about eight hours after the last drink was consumed (but sometimes later) this is when the first symptoms from not having alcohol in the body begin. Insomnia, anxiety, irritability, moodiness, nausea, vomiting, issues focusing, and heart palpitations all can happen during this stage. It lasts for about one to two days.

Stage Two:
Generally, this begins about one to three days after the last drink and is characterized with more serious medical concerns. From increased blood pressure and heart rate to more extreme moodiness this is the stage of withdrawal where the body can begin to go into shock from not having alcohol.

Stage Three:
This last phase of alcohol detox is where the most severe and life threatening symptoms manifest.
•    Hallucinations
•    Seizures
•    Tremors
•    Extreme confusion
•    High levels of irritability

This stage usually occurs about three days to a week after the last drink and can last several weeks. If not treated with the proper alcohol detox treatment, some of the psychological issues of this stage, such as wet brain, can potentially be permanent. That’s just one reason why seeking out help at a reputable alcohol detox facility is crucial.

Finding the Right Alcohol Detox Center
If you realize, or even suspect, that you or a loved one needs to stop drinking, act now. Delaying this process will only prolong the suffering and potentially lead to more serious health issues. Despite your current situation and how desperate and hopeless you may feel—there is hope and help! Just take the first step.

There are several things to consider when looking at selecting an alcohol detox program.  Medically supervised detox is essential to a safe recovery. While there are no guarantees, having a medical professional oversee detox, whether inpatient or outpatient, can help to watch and treat any potential issues that arise such as DTs, hallucinations, extreme anxiety, or heart issues.

Four Must-Ask Questions to Find a Detox Program
When choosing a medical detox program consider the following four questions:
1.    Is there another substance being abused?
Many times there are multiple substances in addition to alcohol being used. You’ll want to select a drug and alcohol detox center if this is the case.
2.    Is there a co-occurring mental health issue?
It is extremely common for those with an alcohol use disorder to have a co-occurring mental health issue. If you have any suspicion this is true for you or your loved one be sure to go somewhere that mental health can be addressed as well.
According to SAMSHA there are 7.9 million people in the United States with co-occurring mental health issues along with substance abuse disorders.
3.    Is there a need for inpatient or outpatient treatment?
While most people may initially be reluctant to go to inpatient treatment, unless there are extenuating circumstances, inpatient treatment is highly recommended.
4.    Is there insurance coverage for the treatment?
Let’s face it, the costs for alcohol or drug abuse treatment can be high. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act most individual and small group health insurance plans are mandated to cover mental health care. Substance abuse programs fall under this provision. While not all treatment centers accept all insurance plans, it’s a good idea to start here, if you or your loved one has insurance, to see what treatment centers will accept your insurance plan.

If you are unsure or need more guidance, SAMSHA has a 24 hour free and confidential helpline to help guide you in this process. They can also refer you to the right place if you don’t have insurance.
If you think you or your loved one has an alcohol problem, take the first step on the road to recovery now. There is hope and you too can live a life free from an addiction to alcohol.

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