What Happens During Alcohol Rehab and How to Know If You Need It

If you’re having difficulties quitting drinking despite the consequences, you may wonder if alcohol rehab is needed and what’s involved. People with alcohol use disorder (AUD) have a brain disorder that makes it more challenging to avoid, misuse, and quit drinking altogether. This is why medical detox from alcohol and addiction treatment may be needed for some. 

This article will explain what alcohol detox is, how to know if you need alcohol rehab, what withdrawal symptoms to expect, and which treatment program might be the right fit for you.

Alcohol treatment support group

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What Is Alcohol Detox?

Alcohol detox happens when your brain has become accustomed to drinking alcohol frequently (i.e., daily) or excessively (i.e., binge drinking), and then you stop. Alcohol is a depressant, so drinking it over time changes your brain chemistry.

As the drinking continues, tolerance to alcohol builds, and your body will need to release increasing amounts of chemicals to regain balance or homeostasis. When you stop drinking, the brain undergoes another adjustment period as the alcohol leaves the system. Physical and withdrawal symptoms of varying levels of severity can occur. 

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms range from mild to severe to potentially life-threatening. How withdrawal affects someone varies depending on overall health status. For example, someone with medical conditions like heart disease or a history of seizures can intensify the severity and risk of withdrawal.

How Long Does Detox Take?

Detox or withdrawal symptoms typically peak within four to 72 hours. While physical symptoms may last hours or days, emotional symptoms may linger for weeks and can be a trigger for relapse.

Physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

Emotional or psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

How to Know If You Need Alcohol Rehab

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest talking with your healthcare provider if you think your drinking has become a problem. If you’re not sure if you need alcohol rehab, consider whether drinking causes conflict in areas of your life like relationships, school or work, and self-esteem. If the answer is yes, you may benefit from treatment.

What to Expect From a Detox Program 


While some people may decide to quit “cold turkey,” it may be in your best interest to seek additional support from a structured program if you’ve been drinking regularly or to excess. Outpatient, inpatient, and residential treatments have been shown effective in treating substance use disorders and are cost-effective compared with no treatment.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Types of Programs

  • Outpatient Programs

For people with mild or moderate AUD, outpatient programs offer professional support in the form of medications to help ease symptoms, lab tests to monitor health status, family and individual counseling, and testing or treatment for conditions that may be linked to alcohol use. They do not offer full-time supervision of withdrawal symptoms (i.e., you detox at home).

  • Inpatient Programs

For people with moderate to severe AUD or other medical complications, inpatient programs offer everything from outpatient treatment plus round-the-clock health status monitoring of vitals (blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, etc.) and supervised symptom management.

What Is Residential Treatment?

Residential treatment is a type of inpatient treatment where a person lives onsite in a sober living community.

How to Choose a Program 

There are many programs to choose from, so how do you know which is right? Ultimately, it comes down to your individual needs and preferences. 

Questions to Ask When Choosing a Rehab Program

There are no wrong questions to ask, but a few you may want to remember include: 

  • What is the price?
  • What is included (i.e., outpatient, inpatient, virtual, or various health services in one location)?
  • What healthcare professionals are available (i.e., therapists, psychiatrists, physicians)?
  • How is success measured?
  • How do they handle relapse?
  • Are there options for follow-up care?

Does Insurance Cover It? 

Insurance may or may not cover alcohol rehab. This is why you’ll likely want to narrow your search to programs that fit within your insurance coverage network. If you’re unsure, consider asking the program coordinator about which insurance companies they work with (if any) and make your decision afterward. 

Tips for Follow-Up Care 

Follow-up care after alcohol rehab is all about helping you build a long-lasting or sustainable sober lifestyle. This may include tips like:

  • Attend all appointments and consider a 12-step recovery group such as Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Seek ongoing recognition, reward, and motivation via habit-tracking apps or sober apps
  • Exercise regularly
  • Stay mindful of relapse warning signs and seek additional support when necessary

Summary 

Alcohol detox and alcohol rehab may be necessary if you have an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol detox includes withdrawal symptoms (both physical and emotional). Symptoms vary in severity and duration but typically peak within a few hours or days. Inpatient and outpatient programs and follow-up care can help you get and stay sober from alcohol.

A Word From Verywell 

While alcohol detox and rehab offer clear-cut ways of getting and staying sober, it’s not always so easy. If you love someone with AUD, undiagnosed or diagnosed, please consider reminding them you’re there to support their sober goals no matter how long it takes. This reassurance goes a long way.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the best treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD)?

    The best treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD) is alcohol detox and rehab. There are several options for detox (alone or medically-assisted) and treatment (inpatient or outpatient). Typically a person will choose inpatient in cases of moderate to severe AUD and outpatient in milder cases. 

  • What are the odds of recovering from alcoholism?

    The odds of recovering from alcohol use disorder or alcoholism are good. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that about one-third of people treated for alcohol use problems have no further symptoms of AUD one year later. Many others will significantly reduce their drinking behaviors and also report fewer alcohol-related problems.

  • Does alcohol use disorder have a genetic aspect?

    Yes. It’s estimated that about half of a person’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder is genetic. If alcoholism runs in the family, this means you’re more likely to develop a problem than someone without alcoholism in their family.

  • What is the most difficult part of alcohol rehab?

    The most difficult part of alcohol rehab may differ from person to person, but generally, it’s detox. Detox is the process of letting your body entirely rid your system of alcohol, and it is scary. Withdrawal symptoms can trigger a relapse, and sobriety is particularly fragile in this stage. 

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol dependence, withdrawal, and relapse.

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  4. MedlinePlus. Alcohol withdrawal.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol frequently asked questions.

  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). Early intervention, treatment, and management of substance use disorders. In: Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services.

  7. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What types of alcohol treatment are available?

  8. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol frequently asked questions.  

  9. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Treatment for alcohol problems: finding and getting help.

  10. Weinstock J, Farney MR, Elrod NM, et al. Exercise as an adjunctive treatment for substance use disorders: rationale and intervention description. Journal of substance abuse treatment. 2017;(2):40-47. doi:10.1016/j.jsat.2016.09.002

  11. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Genetics of alcohol use disorder

By Michelle Pugle
Michelle Pugle, BA, MA, is an expert health writer with nearly a decade of contributing accurate and accessible health news and information to authority websites and print magazines. Her work focuses on lifestyle management, chronic illness, and mental health. Michelle is the author of Ana, Mia & Me: A Memoir From an Anorexic Teen Mind.