Alcohol Detox Options - Inpatient vs. Outpatient

By The Fix staff 12/13/14

Life as an alcoholic is difficult, and the detox process can be frightening, but with proper care, detox can be the start of a long and fruitful recovery. Detoxification, separating yourself from alcohol safely, is absolutely necessary if you ever again hope to lead a purposeful, meaningful life without using alcohol.

As someone who is seeking treatment, several options may be available:

  • Inpatient Detox -- You're admitted to a detox facility.
  • Outpatient Detox -- You visit the facility as an outpatient. Depending upon the severity of your addiction, however, outpatient detox may not be recommended. If you're experiencing severe symptoms such as delerium tremens, supervised detox is always recommended.

Whether you begin your journey as an admitted resident of a rehab facility depends on several factors, including your medical history and the severity of your addiction. 

What is Alcohol Detox?

The detoxification process is different for everyone. The type and severity of symptoms you may experience during detoxification depend upon the extent of your addiction and on your physical health. Usually, your doctor will prescribe replacement medications that help limit the effects of alcoholism withdrawal -- giving you a sort of buffer against the symptoms of detox. This is important because many symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be uncomfortable or even life threatening. 

Medications Used During Detox

Anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines are commonly used to help control the symptoms experienced by someone who is trying to kick alcohol addiction. Long-acting benzos are preferable to shorter-acting ones such as Xanax or Ativan, which can themselves be addicting. Beta-blocker drugs and those used to prevent seizures are also sometimes used in conjunction with benzodiazepines. If you have a seizure while using out-patient detox, seek medical care immediately.

Recovery Using Inpatient Alcohol Detox

This type of alcohol addiction recovery program is typically presided over by a team of medical professionals. If you've been drinking for a long time, or if you drink large amounts of alcohol on a frequent basis, your doctor will likely recommend an inpatient detox followed by a residential treatment program.

As an inpatient, you will live at the treatment facility -- eating and sleeping there -- usually for 3 to 7 days. During this time, a medical staff will be on hand to help manage both the physical and emotional symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which are separated into three categories:

Symptoms of Mild Withdrawal

  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Fever

Symptoms of Moderate Withdrawal

  • Disorientation
  • Mild Seizures
  • A Rise in Blood Pressure
  • Severe Confusion

Symptoms of Severe Withdrawal

  • Suicidal Thoughts
  • Hallucinations
  • Delerium Tremens

The longer you've used alcohol, the more severe your withdrawal symptoms can become, which is why it's so important to seek professional help when attempting detox. Going it alone and trying to kick your habit "cold turkey" can endanger your life.

Inpatients in detox centers transition seamlessly into treatment. They attend groups and counseling to help them discover the reasons why they abuse alcohol, techniques for managing their feelings without alcohol, and life skills to use after recovery has begun. 

Recovery Using Outpatient Alcohol Detox

Not typically recommended as an option for someone suffering from severe addiction to alcohol, outpatient detox consists of visiting your detox facility of choice on a regular basis. During the first visit, you'll undergo a physical exam to determine your overall health. You may be given medication to help prevent the onset of anxiety, confusion, sweating, nausea, and other potential symptoms. Usually, you'll stay a few hours for observation before your medical team sends you home with a supportive friend or family member.

Outpatient treatment is usually reserved for those who have been abusing alcohol for a short period of time and are in relatively good health. It's also important to note that outpatient therapy requires the addict to have at least one person willing to help support them throughout the detox process.

One factor to keep in mind when choosing outpatient detox is the level of your ability to monitor yourself when in an unsupervised environment. Outpatients have much more freedom than those who are under constant supervision. If you feel like temptation to use is a factor, you should forego seeking detox on an outpatient basis.

Which of the Many Alcohol Detox Centers is Right for You?

Finding the treatment center that best fits your needs can be a challenge. You'll want to take into account your financial considerations, including insurance coverage. Speak with your insurance provider before choosing an alcohol treatment center to make sure that you understand just what percentage of treatment is covered and what portion you'll be financially responsible for. Detox is usually covered by most insurance, but treatment may or may not be. Beyond financial considerations, there are other factors to think about as well:

  • Accreditation -- Choose a program that's accredited with the state and that employs licensed medical professionals on staff.
  • Statistics -- Does the facility publish statistics concerning the success of its program? If not, you may want to pass on that particular center. 
  • Long-term Treatment -- What happens after initial detox treatment has concluded? Are there aftercare services available? Is there a counselor on duty who can help you in an emergency?

Don't be afraid to make an appointment with an admissions specialist to ask these questions. A treatment program is only as successful as the people and training behind it. 

The Dangers of Detox

Detoxification from alcohol poses certain risks. The longer you've been using alcohol, the more severe the side effects can become. The severe symptoms listed above should be taken very seriously and always attended by a physician. One of the most dangerous is delirium tremens.

Delirium Tremens

Delirium tremens actually has a physical effect upon your brain. It's caused by the sudden reduction or cessation of alcohol intake. The symptoms can be life-threatening:

  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Seizures

Any one of these symptoms alone can cause fear, discomfort, and pain, but if you experience them when you're alone and without a medical professional to help, your life could be endangered. Seek medical attention immediately. 

It can take up to ten days to completely recover from delirium tremens. During this time, your doctor may prescribe substitution drugs to help lessen the effects.

Once Detox is Complete

A huge part of the overall success of your detox depends upon learning effective methods of dealing with the stresses of everyday life. It involves re-training yourself to handle the problems that life deals you without resorting to alcohol as a buffer against your feelings.

  • Keeping supportive friends and family nearby is helpful. Even a phone call can be a lifesaving thing to an alcoholic in detox or early recovery who feels overwhelmed by the day's pressures. 
  • Meditation is another way of dealing with difficulties. Meditations can be the healing balm that soothes your soul when life gets to be too much.
  • A mentor who is readily available to listen when you need to talk is a vital part of the detox experience -- especially if you're being treated as an outpatient. This is the person you can call up anytime of the night or day when the urge to drink is overwhelming.
  • Support groups can also be a positive experience. Talking about your urges and compulsions to others who understand them can be a huge help.
  • Understanding your triggers is an important part of recovery as well. Once you realize exactly what sets you off and learn to avoid those situations, your life becomes easier to manage.

Your Detox, Your Life

Once you have the facts on alcoholism detox, it's easier to make the right choices. Regardless of what you hear, you should never attempt to go it alone when ridding your body of alcohol. Going cold turkey is dangerous; it can make you very sick or even kill you. Even if you choose an outpatient detox process, make sure you are with someone 24 hours a day until you are completely alcohol free.

Use the resources that are available at your disposal to kick your addiction -- a good, reputable inpatient or outpatient detox facility, trained medical professionals who care about what happens to you, replacement medications to make your journey to sobriety as comfortable as possible, and the love and support of friends and family who have only your best interests at heart.

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