If you’re going through a detox program, it probably means you have a high likelihood of experiencing uncomfortable or even dangerous withdrawal symptoms. It also means you have a chemical dependence on one or more substances. Chemical dependence is a process that occurs in your brain after a period of consistent drinking or drug use.
Alcohol can lead to dependence after a period of frequent binge drinking or heavy, daily drinking. People who drink heavy amounts consistently for a long period of time are more likely to develop a chemical dependence on alcohol than someone that drinks small amounts or only drinks on the weekend.
Other drugs can also cause chemical dependence. Barbiturates and benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants like alcohol, and they can cause dependence after just a few weeks of regular use. Prescription and illicit opioids also have a high risk for chemical dependence with long-term use. Stimulants like cocaine and meth create a powerful sense of euphoria and can be extremely addictive. In most cases, it takes more than one dose to cause chemical dependence, but many recreational drugs have effects that encourage repeated use.
Alcohol Dependence and Withdrawal
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that causes your brain and nervous system to slow down. Alcohol works with a chemical in your body called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a chemical that’s closely tied to rest and relaxation. It’s also an important chemical in allowing you to fall asleep.
Prescription depressants also work with GABA to create similar effects to alcohol. Alcohol and other depressants increase the effectiveness of GABA so that it has greater effects for longer. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it works to slow down activity in the brain, which is why alcohol can make you feel relaxed and sleepy.
Over a period of regular or heavy alcohol use, your brain and nervous system will begin to adapt to the presence of alcohol in your body. Alcohol disrupts the normal chemical communications in your brain, so your body adapts to it by adjusting your brain’s chemical balance. You’ll start to notice signs of dependence when it takes more alcohol to achieve the same effects that it had when you first started drinking. This is called tolerance. Many people believe that tolerance is a sign that they don’t have a drinking problem because they can “hold their liquor,” but the opposite is true. Tolerance can be a sign that your body is getting used to alcohol and starting to adapt to rely on it.
Once you’ve developed a dependence on alcohol, quitting can throw off your chemical balance again, and your brain will have to adapt to life without the drug. However, while becoming dependent is a gradual process, quitting cold turkey will send you into a chemical imbalance suddenly, causing uncomfortable and even dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol, and other depressants, are the only major drug class to have a high likelihood of causing life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
Dependence and Withdrawal from Other Drugs
Other drugs can also cause withdrawal symptoms after you develop a chemical dependence. Opioids can cause flu-like symptoms that can be extremely uncomfortable, and they can be notoriously difficult to get through without returning to opioid use. Stimulants can cause extreme fatigue and discomfort during withdrawal as well as serious depression.
However, neither opioids nor stimulants are associated with life-threatening withdrawal symptoms to the same degree that alcohol and other depressants are. Still, there are some cases where withdrawal from other drugs can be dangerous, especially if you have other health conditions that could be complicated by withdrawal symptoms.
What Happens During Detox?
Detox, or medical detoxification, is a high level of care in addiction treatment that involves medically managed intensive inpatient treatment. In other words, detox involves a hospital-like setting and 24-hour treatment from medical professionals. Detox can also involve treatment with medications to help alleviate symptoms, avoid complications, or treat other issues related to addiction and withdrawal. When you enter an addiction treatment program or a detox program, you’ll likely start with a medical assessment.
Medical professionals will look for your current level of chemical dependence and the likelihood you’ll go through severe withdrawal. If you’ve recently stopped drinking after a long period of alcohol misuse or if you present to treatment while intoxicated, your risk of alcohol withdrawal is high. If you’re already showing signs of alcohol withdrawal symptoms like tremors, restlessness, shakiness, nausea, or agitation, you may be given a benzodiazepine medication.
Benzodiazepines include anxiolytic and sedative drugs that are also depressants like alcohol. However, they can also be useful in helping people taper off of alcohol dependence. Even benzodiazepine misuse can also cause dependence and withdrawal symptoms like alcohol, but they can help avoid dangerous alcohol withdrawal when taken with direction from a doctor.
Specific medications you receive will depend on your needs. If you’re not likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms like seizures or heart complications, you may not need to taper with benzodiazepine medication. However, if you are likely to go through dangerous withdrawal, you may be put on a tapering schedule to avoid seizures and other complications.
Detox will also involve clinical treatment and meetings with therapists. You may start one-on-one therapy sessions to address some of the underlying causes and consequences of addiction. If you’ve become addicted to alcohol, tapering won’t be enough to address cravings and other issues that may lead you to relapse.
You may also begin group therapy sessions, behavioral therapies, and other therapy options that can address specific problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety disorders. Like the medications you receive, the therapies you go through will be tailored to your needs.
Detox typically lasts for five to 10 days before you move on to the next level of care. The length of time you spend in detox depends on how long it takes for your body to get past acute withdrawal symptoms. Post-acute withdrawal can also be dangerous when alcohol dependence is involved. Even after the majority of your symptoms have passed, you may still experience a seizure, which could require further medical monitoring for a few days to a week after detox.
Drinking During Alcohol Detox
The alcohol detox process is a crucial time on your road to recovery. Since alcohol can be dangerous during withdrawal, it’s important that you seek medical help. As doctors and medical professionals treat you during the acute detox phase, they will be monitoring you to help you avoid serious complications. Detox can also involve medications that are used to help you taper off of alcohol gradually to avoid dangerous complications. Drinking alcohol during alcohol detox can significantly interfere with the treatment process.
Drinking During Detox with No Tapering
If you’re going through a medical detox program and you’re not given medications with which you can taper, you likely have a mild dependence on alcohol. Still, the risk of dangerous withdrawal may warrant medical treatment and monitoring. Drinking during detox can significantly complicate your treatment process and lead to a number of complications. These complications can include the following:
- Hindering the recovery process. Drinking during your detox process is considered a relapse, and you’ll have to revisit your treatment plan. It’s important to know that failure to complete a detox program without relapse doesn’t mean you can’t get sober. But it does mean you’ll have to talk to your recovery team and try again.
- Hindering your body’s recovery. Your body will start to adjust your brain chemistry to adapt to life without alcohol. This process takes several days to weeks. Your brain and body can return to normal, but the process takes time. Drinking provides your body with alcohol and can slow your body’s adaptation.
- Risking alcohol poisoning. After you’ve spent some time going through detox, your body may have started to adjust your brain chemistry back to normal. Your tolerance may start to diminish. If you binge drink in excessive amounts that you were used to when you were at the height of your dependence and tolerance, you may drink to the point of overdose.
Drinking During Detox with Medications
If you’re going through alcohol detox with a drug that’s prescribed to help you taper, drinking alcohol may be even more dangerous. Benzodiazepines are usually used to help a person gradually taper off of alcohol. Benzodiazepines work in the brain in a way that’s very similar to alcohol, so they can help you avoid serious withdrawal symptoms. The tapering process is fairly precise, and your doctor will help determine the right dose to avoid severe withdrawal while still being effective at helping your body return to normal.
Adding alcohol to the mix can hinder progress, slow your body’s adaptation back to normal, and cause some dangerous side effects. When benzodiazepines are combined with alcohol, they can have potentiating effects. Since they have similar effects on the brain, they can work together to cause more intense and severe reactions that lead to overdose. Mixing depressants can lead to respiratory depression, which is when your breathing slows to a dangerous and life-threatening degree.