Alcohol Detoxification and Withdrawal: Care Instructions

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Your Care Instructions

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 scary and dangerous. 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 you must see a doctor. 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 begin from 4 to 12 hours after you stop drinking. But they may not start for several days after the last drink. They can last a few days.

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, free from the burden of being dependent.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • Before you stop drinking, talk to your doctor about how you plan to stop. Be sure to be completely honest with him or her about how much you have been drinking. Your doctor will figure out whether you need to detox in a supervised medical centre.
  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse call line if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Make sure someone you trust is with you the whole time. Have friends and family members take turns staying with you until you are done with detox.
  • Put a list of emergency numbers near the phone. This should include your doctor, the police, the nearest hospital and emergency room, and neighbours who can help if needed.
  • Make sure all alcohol is removed from the house before you start. This includes beverages as well as medicines, rubbing alcohol, and certain flavourings like vanilla extract.
  • Keep "drinking buddies" away during the time 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 carbohydrate 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.
  • Keep the number for a suicide crisis centre on or near your phone. To find a suicide prevention crisis centre in your province, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention webpage at http://suicideprevention.ca/need-help. If you or someone you know talks about suicide or feeling hopeless, get help right away.

When should you call for help?

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 or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

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

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

  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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