Alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in America, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Alcohol addiction affects not just the person who is dependent on alcohol. It also affects their family, friends, and even strangers, depending on the risky behaviors someone might engage in while under the influence, such as drunk driving.
The proper medical term for alcohol addiction is alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is defined as a chronic, progressive brain disease that is characterized by compulsive, uncontrolled alcohol use despite consequences, as well as a negative mental and emotional state when not using.
Chronic and progressive means that if someone has AUD, it is only going to worsen the longer the person goes without treatment.
Because alcohol use is so common and drinking alcohol is widely accepted as normal behavior, it can be difficult to catch someone’s transition from what would be considered “normal” levels of consumption to abuse, dependence, and eventually, addiction.
The combination of alcohol’s widespread availability, use, and the difficulty in spotting early signs of addictive behaviors are all part of the reason, at least to some degree, that roughly 1 in 12 adults age 18 and older in the United States meet the criteria for alcohol addiction.
Other factors that can work together to trigger an alcohol use disorder in someone include:
Currently, there is no cure for alcohol addiction, and even after treatment, avoiding relapse is a lifelong commitment. However, alcohol rehab treatment can make the task of managing addictive behaviors successfully and staying sober significantly easier.
Alcohol rehab means the same thing as “addiction treatment” or “addiction rehab”; it’s just specialized specifically for treating those with an AUD. Alcohol rehab is a recovery program that is meant to help people struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction quit drinking and maintain long-term sobriety by replacing unhealthy, addictive behaviors with positive ones that will help them avoid relapse.
This is done by using different therapies and treatment modalities designed to address both the physical and mental sides of addiction. Through detox and other medication-assisted treatments as well as therapy sessions that help clients understand the underlying issues behind their addiction, they will be more prepared to manage their addiction more effectively.
Every alcohol rehabilitation center is working to achieve the same goal, but not all treatment centers will use the same methods and techniques to accomplish it. Some addiction treatment rehabs may incorporate holistic therapies, such as meditation or art therapy, while others may only offer behavioral therapy. Similarly, not all rehabs will provide medication-assisted treatment.
Most substance abuse treatment centers have programs for both drugs and alcohol, but some may specialize in one or the other. There are also facilities that specialize further, offering gender-specific treatment or programs aimed at veterans, those with co-occurring disorders, and people who have experienced trauma or are on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
An alcohol rehab center is more likely to have detox services incorporated into its overall program than a general substance abuse treatment facility, but it is not guaranteed. Likewise, some may offer the full continuum of care, while others may only provide outpatient treatment.
All of these differences and potential treatment options only highlight the importance of choosing the alcohol rehab program that will best meet your specific individual needs. Alcohol addiction treatment has no one-size-fits-all form of therapy, and learning more about what is involved in the standard alcohol rehab process can help you better understand what you are looking for.
When you first enter addiction treatment, you will go through an intake process that’s designed to help determine the best level of care for your needs. Clinicians will likely reference the ASAM criteria, a compilation of six dimensions that are important to consider in treatment that’s outlined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
The factors include acute withdrawal potential, medical conditions, psychological conditions, readiness to change, relapse potential, and your living environment. The criteria are designed to help determine the level of care you need to start within treatment. If you have high-level medical or psychological needs, you might go through a higher level of care like medical detox.
If you’ve completed higher levels of care or if you don’t need high-level care, you might go through intensive outpatient or outpatient treatment.
Here’s a breakdown of each of the four major levels of care:
Medical detox is generally the first level of substance abuse treatment and is an especially crucial part of alcohol rehab. Detox is the process of ridding someone’s system of alcohol and other toxins to get them mentally and physically stabilized as well as to treat acute intoxication.
Specifics such as the length and severity of someone’s alcohol withdrawal during detox is going to depend on factors like how much they were drinking, how often, and the state of their overall health. That being said, alcohol withdrawal has some of the most unpleasant and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms, including hallucinations, heart palpitations, chest pains, seizures, and delirium tremens (DTs), which can be fatal if not properly treated.
Medical detox is the best way to avoid complications during alcohol withdrawal. The withdrawal process should never be attempted alone without at least some level of supervision from experienced health care professionals who can provide medications to ease the symptoms of this uncomfortable period and get you through detox safely.
After the detox period is finished, ongoing care is the next phase of alcohol rehab. If you have a particularly severe AUD, a history of addiction and relapse, a co-occurring disorder, or a home environment that is not beneficial for recovery, then the intensive level of support provided by inpatient care may be your best treatment option.
During inpatient treatment, clients live onsite during their alcohol rehab program, with 24/7 access to medical support as well as therapists and other specialist health practitioners. Inpatient care provides a safe and secure environment where you can fully focus on your recovery without having to deal with the stresses, distractions, triggers, and temptations of your routine life.
Residential treatment is a long-term form of inpatient care that usually lasts between three to six months, but it could potentially last as long as a year, depending on how long someone takes to fully recover. Because of this, residential treatment facilities usually are clinical and have more individualized amenities and living spaces that are similar to apartments or dormitories.
The next treatment level down from inpatient is outpatient care. Outpatient treatment allows you to continue living at home and going about your usual day-to-day activities while also attending therapy sessions and making medical check-ins at a rehab facility.
Some people may move from inpatient to outpatient as they progress through alcohol rehab and no longer need the same level of support or medical monitoring. Others whose AUDs are milder and people have not been abusing alcohol for as long may start their rehab with outpatient treatment.
Intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) is a subtype of outpatient treatment that serves as an in-between level for people who do not require the intensive care and monitoring of inpatient treatment but still need more support than outpatient care provides.
IOP still involves living either at home or in a structured sober living environment and commuting to a treatment center for intensive therapy about three to five times a week, for around four hours per session.
Alcohol addiction recovery does not end when alcohol rehab ends. As previously mentioned, it is a lifelong task that requires active management. Fortunately, there are many different forms of aftercare programs available to help you transition back to everyday life as well as provide a strong network of support.
Some alcohol rehab centers will offer alumni services, which makes it easier to keep in touch with the people you went through your rehab program with and provide you with support from friends who have been through the same experience you have.
There are 12-step programs and support groups you can attend, including Alcoholics Anonymous. It provides a safe space and group of people for you to turn to if you need to reach out for help staying sober.
American Society of Addiction Medicine. (n.d.). What is the ASAM Criteria? Retrieved from https://www.asam.org/resources/the-asam-criteria/about
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, February). 7: Duration of treatment. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction/section-iii/6-duration-treatment
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017, June). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). Behavioral Therapies. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment/evidence-based-approaches-to-drug-addiction-treatment/behavioral-therapies
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017, January). Delirium Tremens. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000766.htm
Wilcox, S. (2015, July 25). Facts About Alcohol. Retrieved from https://www.ncadd.org/about-addiction/alcohol/facts-about-alcohol