Alcohol & Benzo Detox at Home: How to, Risks and Alternatives
An at-home detox from alcohol or benzodiazepines is never recommended, as these substances can cause serious health complications during withdrawal, such as:
- Digestive discomfort
- Heart palpitations
- Panic attacks
- Muscle pain
- Delirium tremens
- Increased risk of severe symptoms with the next withdrawal attempt
The seeming ease and low expense of handling detox and recovery at home can be appealing to individuals who struggle with addiction to alcohol or benzodiazepine drugs (benzos) and to their families and friends. This temptation can be amplified by an assumption that the simple solution to an addiction problem of this type is simply to quit using.
In addition, a number of organizations and websites promise that at-home, self-supervised treatments can deliver rapid detox with low cost or effort. These programs recommend methods of tapering usage over a period of time, or even of using other drugs to help ease the symptoms of detox, which can compound the problem at hand. These programs make it seem that at-home detox is easy as long as one is careful, but they provide little or no supervision of the process.
In reality, most people are not informed of or prepared to handle the potential dangers of withdrawal from alcohol or benzos; they are often surprised to discover that abruptly stopping use can be more dangerous than withdrawal from other addictive substances. In turn, families and friends are often informed of or unable to provide a loved one with the continual care and expertise required to manage the symptoms of alcohol or benzo withdrawal. For all these reasons, at-home detox can be extremely risky.
In addition, home detox does not offer the other treatment and recovery methods, such as counseling and aftercare, that can maintain long-term sobriety. In contrast, a controlled, supervised medical detox program, under the care of sympathetic, experienced providers can help control these risks.
For these reasons, use of this kind of program is the most recommended way to detox and avoid the dangers inherent in alcohol or benzo withdrawal, resulting in a safer, long-term recovery.
How Alcohol and Benzodiazepines Affect the Brain and Body
Alcohol and benzos act on the body in a similar manner; they have a sedative effect, which means they block certain brain chemicals, slowing brain functions down. This is what causes the calming effect that makes these substances attractive. Over time, continued and heavy use of these substances can cause deep chemical changes in the brain that make an individual unable to function properly without the substance. This results in dependence on the substance, and it is an indication of addiction.
It may seem that a good way to get over this kind of addiction is to simply stop using the substance. However, the changes in the brain caused by these chemicals result in a real, physical need for the substance, and the body will react to the loss of the chemicals by producing withdrawal symptoms.
When a person who has developed addiction to alcohol or benzos attempts to stop all use abruptly, or “cold-turkey,”the withdrawal symptoms follow with somewhat predictable timing. These symptoms have a range of effects on the individual’s physical and mental health, depending on the length of use and severity of addiction involved. In fact, because of the effects of these withdrawal processes, doctors often refer to them as “syndromes.”
Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can result in the following physical and psychological symptoms:
- Digestive discomfort
- Loss of appetite
- Excessive perspiration
- Heart palpitations
- Delirium tremens (DTs)
According to a research review in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal, the majority of relatively minor symptoms listed above generally appear within 6-12 hours of the last drink, while hallucinations–which can consist of strange sensations on the skin, sounds, or visions–may appear 12-24 hours after ceasing intake. Seizures, which are a very severe reaction, can occur in as little as two hours after the last beverage, but may take up to 24-48 hours to appear.
Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Syndrome
Similar to alcohol withdrawal, benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome can result in the following symptoms, according to a study in the journal Addiction:
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Hand tremors
- Difficulty concentrating
- Dry retching and nausea
- Weight loss
- Muscle pain and stiffness
- Psychotic events
Again, while many of these symptoms may seem to be mild, they can progress in waves over the course of days, weeks, or even months, and they can cause physical harm or death. Seizures, in particular, are a major risk during benzo detox.
DTs is the most dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptom, and it will generally appear 48-72 hours after ceasing alcohol intake.
DTs can involve severe hallucination, heavy perspiration, an abnormally fast heart rate, high blood pressure, fever, and agitation. Without the proper means to treat DTs, these symptoms can lead to heart attack and death.
Severity of Symptoms
Psychological symptoms of alcohol and benzo withdrawal can persist for a long time after the physical symptoms have passed; for example, the anxiety that many benzos are prescribed to reduce can return and worsen after detox.
Many of these psychological symptoms can be diminished through a medical treatment program.
For the alcohol and benzo withdrawal symptoms listed above, their severity generally depends on the amount of the substance that was regularly consumed and the duration of the addiction. Heavier use and longer periods of use tend to result in more severe withdrawal reactions. However, the response of a given individual may not be predicted solely on this information.
For example, research from the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry demonstrates that sometimes, low-dose, long-term use of benzodiazepines can still result in dangerous withdrawal symptoms, despite the low dosage levels. Additional circumstances that contribute to the level of withdrawal response include other physical health conditions that the individual may have, age, simultaneous addictions to other substances, and whether or not the individual has previously tried to quit using and relapsed.
Continual observation and experienced care can mitigate these dangers. Whereas the family or friends of someone trying to overcome an addiction to alcohol or benzos may not have the ability to provide that constant care, or to predict or manage some of the more severe symptoms, an inpatient treatment program is designed to provide monitoring and treatment that can help ease these symptoms and minimize their risks.
At-Home Detox and Relapse Rates
The incomplete nature of at-home detox creates another danger for the individual trying to recover from alcohol or benzo addiction: the risk of relapse.Another risk is the “kindling phenomenon,” which posits that repeated relapses tend to result in more severe withdrawal symptoms with each subsequent detox. If a person tries many times to self-detox without intervention, relapsing each time, it sets up a potential chain reaction of worsening symptoms that could lead to a more severe withdrawal event later on.
A study from Addiction noted that the majority of people who received professional detox or substance abuse treatment were more likely to remain abstinent over time, while those who attempted to stop using or drinking on their own were more likely to relapse. As the numbers from the study demonstrate, the difference between people who got help and those who tried to recover on their own was significant.
After three years:
- 62.4% of those who received help were in remission.
- 43.4% of those who didn’t receive help were in remission.
After 16 years:
- 60.5% of no-help individuals who were sober at the 3-year mark had relapsed.
- 42.9% of treated individuals who were sober at the 3-year mark had relapsed.
This risk can be greatly reduced through a professional treatment program, because these programs don’t focus on detox alone. Therapy, continued support, and coping strategies are provided after the detox process is over, giving the individual tools and methods to help them continue their recovery after they leave the program and return home.
A Preference for Inpatient Treatment
Perhaps the most meaningful demonstration is the experience of people who have tried both at-home detox and inpatient treatment programs.
In a study published in BMC Psychiatry, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with patients who had tried various means of overcoming benzo addictions and who discussed their own perceptions of the ways in which different forms of treatment worked for them.
Most of the people involved in the study had tried abruptly stopping use at home and found the withdrawal symptoms challenging to deal with and hard to predict. In addition, the duration of symptoms was longer than they expected. Trying to manage on their own, they struggled and were most likely to relapse.
On the other hand, they generally agreed that inpatient treatment was safer and more comfortable. They also felt that a longer time in treatment was more sufficient than short-term programs in helping them recover.
For those who are struggling with addictions to alcohol or benzos, at-home detox can seem easier and more comfortable.
The reality is that abruptly stopping use of these substances can be dangerous for the reasons described above, while the often unexpected nature of withdrawal symptoms makes at-home detox less comfortable than detox in an inpatient treatment program.
An inpatient treatment program provides the experience and consistent care needed to manage the dangers of detox, while implementing methods that can diminish both the risks and the discomfort of the symptoms, reduce stress for clients and their family and friends, and lower the likelihood of relapse, all in a comfortable, compassionate setting.