What is detoxification?

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Alcohol detoxification and withdrawal: Overview

If you drink alcohol regularly and then suddenly stop, you may go through some physical and emotional problems while the alcohol clears out of your system. Clearing the alcohol from your body is called detoxification, or detox. Physical and emotional problems that may happen during detox are called withdrawal.

Symptoms of withdrawal can be uncomfortable. Mild symptoms include nausea and vomiting, sweating, shakiness, and intense worry. Severe symptoms include being confused and irritable, feeling things on your body that are not there, seeing or hearing things that are not there, and trembling. You may even have seizures. If your symptoms become severe, see a doctor right away. People who drink large amounts of alcohol should not try to detox at home. A person can die of severe alcohol withdrawal.

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may start a few hours after you stop drinking. Or they may not start until a few days after the last drink. They can last a few weeks.

It is hard to stop drinking. But when you have cleared the alcohol from your system, you will be able to start the next part of your life.


Detoxification (detox) is clearing alcohol or other drugs from a person's body. It's often done under medical care. Medicines may be used to treat symptoms and prevent complications, such as seizures.

Detox works best when it takes place in a setting like a hospital. But it may also be done in an outpatient setting. This depends on the severity of the person's physical dependence, what substance the person used, and other medical problems. It usually includes mental health counseling with medical monitoring, supervision, and support.

How can you care for yourself during alcohol detoxification and withdrawal?

  • Before you stop drinking, talk to your doctor about how you plan to stop. Be sure to be completely honest with the doctor about how much you have been drinking. Your doctor will figure out whether you need to detox in a supervised medical center.
  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Make sure someone you trust is with you as much as possible. Have friends and family members take turns staying with you until you are done with detox.
  • Keep a list of emergency numbers. Include your doctor, the nearest hospital and emergency room, and neighbors who can help if needed.
  • Make sure all alcohol is removed from the home before you start. This includes beverages as well as medicines, rubbing alcohol, and certain flavorings like vanilla extract.
  • Avoid spending time with people you used to drink with while you are going through detox.
  • Make your surroundings calm. Soft lights, soft music, and a comfortable place to sit or lie down can help make the process easier.
  • Drink lots of fluids and eat snacks such as fruit, cheese and crackers, and pretzels. Foods high in carbohydrates may help reduce the craving for alcohol.
  • Understand that detox is going to be hard.
  • Keep in mind that the people watching over you during detox are there to help. Explain to them before you start that you may not act like yourself until detox is finished.
  • Consider joining a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Sharing your experiences with other people who face similar challenges may help you feel less overwhelmed.

Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away. You can:

  • Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line.

Consider saving these numbers in your phone.

Go to 988lifeline.org for more information or to chat online.

Alcohol detoxification and withdrawal: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You feel you cannot stop from hurting yourself or someone else.
  • You vomit many times and cannot stop.
  • You vomit blood or what looks like coffee grounds.
  • You have trouble breathing or are breathing very fast.
  • Your heart beats more than 120 times a minute and will not slow down.
  • You have chest pain.
  • You have a seizure.
  • You see or feel things that are not there (hallucinate).

If you are caring for someone who is going through detox, call if:

  • The person passes out (loses consciousness).
  • The person sees or feels things that are not there and sees or hears the same things many times.
  • The person is very agitated and will not calm down.
  • The person becomes violent or threatens to be violent.
  • The person has a seizure.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have a fever.
  • You have severe belly pain.
  • You are very shaky.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.