Alcohol detoxification is a process by which a person quits drinking alcohol. Generally speaking, alcohol detoxification symptoms follow heavy alcohol abuse, and there are currently approved drugs that can help with alcohol detoxification in alcohol-addicted persons. There is some dispute among professionals on the definition of detoxification, since everyone who abuses alcohol experiences withdrawal symptoms, but it is generally accepted that withdrawal occurs when an alcoholic no longer has access to alcohol. Alcohol detoxification is a medical procedure used to remove the alcohol from the body while allowing the person to remain alert and functional.
In the past, doctors viewed alcohol detoxification as synonymous with dehydration, and used methods such as IV hydration and oral hydration salts to keep the patient adequately hydrated. In recent years, many alternative therapies for alcohol detoxification have emerged. The most prominent are herbal and botanical remedies, including herbs such as aloe vera, ginseng, acid, gingko biloba, thuja, Valerian, and l-tryptophan. These substances have been shown to alleviate some of the physical symptoms of withdrawal, such as restlessness, anxiety, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and cramps. Some of these herbs have also been found to increase the efficacy of benzodiazepines, which are usually used to treat anxiety and depression.
In addition to herbal remedies, alternative treatments for alcohol detoxification include the use of various pharmaceutical medications, including ativan, azapirones, clonazepam, alprazolam, bromazepam, fluphenazine, lorazepam, lofexidene, and midazolam. Most of these medications act in the central nervous system (CNS) rather than the kidneys or liver, although some, such as alprazolam and azapirones, affect both the CNS and the rest of the body. Ativan and other benzodiazepines also affect the gastrointestinal tract; thus patients must be carefully monitored while undergoing treatment for alcohol detoxification. Although alprazolam and lofexidene are generally considered safe when taken properly under medical supervision, it is important that patients with a history of gastric or duodenal ulcers or any other chronic mucous membrane disorder should not take these drugs during their detoxification period.
In combination with the above treatment options, detox units that utilize supportive therapies should also be established in order to provide patients with the additional care they need during their alcohol detoxification period. This type of care typically includes assistance with nutrition and weight loss, psychiatric help and counseling, socialization, exercise, and the development of lifestyle and behavioral changes. Nutritional support can include an increase in fiber and protein intake, the addition of a fat-free diet and increase in liquid and non-alcoholic beverages. Psychological support should include family support and encouragement, since anxiety and feelings of failure often lead to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The addition of counseling and behavioral modification therapy has been shown to be very effective in reducing the frequency and severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Another serious condition that can arise during alcohol detoxification is a condition known as delirium tremens. It is characterized by a rapid, uncontrollable shaking of the limbs and face. This condition can be life threatening if not treated rapidly. Some symptoms of delirium tremens are increased heart rate, sweating, vomiting, vision disturbances and sometimes diarrhea or constipation.
Alcoholics who suffer from one of these conditions should be monitored closely for signs of relapse. Patients with severe alcohol withdrawal seizures should be hospitalized in a special rehabilitation facility and monitored 24 hours a day by a skilled staff. Treatment for patients with moderate to severe withdrawal seizures may require hospitalization and emergency services. Treatment for patients with mild to moderate levels of aws should focus on supportive therapies and non-pharmacologic techniques such as nutrition and acupuncture. Patients should also be encouraged to return to their regular activities of daily living as much as possible. Alcoholics should be referred to a specialized rehabilitation facility only after receiving medical care and approval by a treating physician.