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Alcohol Rehabilitation: Everything You Need to Know

Written by
Chris Elkins, M.A.
Edited by
Joey Rosenberg
Medically Reviewed By
Ashraf Ali, M.D.
This page features
8 Cited Research Articles

Alcohol addiction is the top reason people in the United States attend rehab centers. Rehab helps people safely detox from alcohol, overcome withdrawal and find support groups that help them learn how to live a life of sobriety.

Alcoholism Rehab Timeline:

  • Day 0: Assessment and diagnosis
  • Days 0–3: Supervised detox
  • Days 3–28: Inpatient or residential rehab
  • Days 28–90: Outpatient counseling and therapy
  • Days 90+: Support group attendance and therapy as needed

Overview of Alcohol Rehabilitation

Alcohol addiction is the most common type of addiction, and it’s also one of the most difficult to overcome. But recovery is possible with dedication and the right resources.

People can achieve sobriety in different ways. Those with mild alcohol problems may be able to recover with the help of support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or a primary care physician. However, people addicted to alcohol require rehab to recover from the disease.

Alcohol addiction is a brain disease that disrupts the way you think and how you feel. Rehab provides a safe setting to overcome alcohol withdrawal. It helps you understand why cravings and triggers lead to relapse. It also teaches you how to overcome those challenges. After receiving rehab from a quality treatment center, you’ll be prepared to live in sobriety.

More than 15 million people in the United States had an alcohol use disorder in 2016, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. About 1.1 million people went to rehab for alcohol, and an additional 1.1 million went to rehab for alcohol and use of another drug.

About 14 million people who needed treatment for an alcohol problem in 2016 didn’t receive it, according to that survey.

It can be difficult to determine whether you have a drinking problem and whether you need rehab. Those who can stop drinking on their own probably aren’t addicted to alcohol.

Admissions coordinators at rehab facilities can help you determine whether you need treatment at an inpatient facility or an outpatient facility. You can talk to an admissions coordinator or find an alcohol rehab center near you by calling a hotline for alcoholism.. Once you enter rehab, addiction treatment specialists will help you develop a treatment plan.

Determining the Severity of the Drinking Problem

Evaluating the severity of your issues with alcohol can help you determine if you need rehab for alcohol addiction. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s latest diagnostic manual, commonly referred to as DSM-5, the presence of two of the following symptoms indicates an alcohol use disorder:

The DSM-5 uses 11 criteria, including those listed above, to diagnose alcoholism. You can answer a quick questionnaire to determine how severe your addiction to alcohol is.


Take our 11-question quiz to find out now.

The first phase of rehab is an assessment. Nurses or therapists will assess the severity of your alcohol use disorder by using questionnaires or by talking to you about your history. They may also perform a physical exam and run blood tests to check for other medical issues.

Alcohol use disorder is the medical term for alcoholism or alcohol addiction. People who have mild alcohol use disorders and don’t experience withdrawal when they quit drinking may be able to recover with the help of support groups or a doctor.

People with moderate or severe alcohol use disorders need rehab. If you experience withdrawal symptoms — sweating, restlessness, clammy skin, anxiety, tremors or headaches — when you quit drinking, rehab can help you detox.

Detox from Alcohol

The second stage of rehab is detoxification. Detox doesn’t cure addiction or help you live without alcohol. It prepares you for treatment so you can learn to avoid relapse and stay sober.

Many people show up for rehab under the influence of alcohol. If they don’t drink before rehab, they’ll experience withdrawal. The first step during detox from alcohol is to keep the person safe while they sober up, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Rehab centers keep intoxicated patients safe by:

When alcohol leaves your system completely, you’ll sober up. But you’ll also enter withdrawal. Withdrawal is the worst part of the rehab experience. It usually begins between six and 24 hours after the last drink, according to SAMHSA.

Withdrawal is necessary to recover from addiction. It’s dangerous to detox on your own because alcohol withdrawal can cause hallucinations, seizures, delirium tremens and other life-threatening symptoms. Rehab centers keep you safe by treating those symptoms.

Inpatient and Residential Therapy for Alcoholism

Most rehab centers don’t start counseling and therapy until after withdrawal. People usually can’t focus and learn during detox. They may attend support group meetings to receive encouragement and inspiration.

The most intense stage of alcohol withdrawal usually lasts one to three days. After that time period, most patients begin therapy. However, some lingering effects of withdrawal, such as sleep problems, fatigue and irritability, can linger for multiple weeks, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Medication-assisted treatment may begin during inpatient therapy. The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved medications for use during alcohol detox, but it has approved three medications to help patients stay sober.

Medications used to treat alcoholism:

The medications aid patients during recovery, but they don’t cure addiction. They are most effective when combined with therapy, according to SAMHSA.

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Counseling and Therapy During Alcohol Rehab

Withdrawal is one of the reasons recovery from alcohol addiction is difficult. But it isn’t the only reason. Most people who struggle with alcohol drink for reasons that aren’t obvious.

They may have a history of trauma, abuse or pain. They may self-medicate negative feelings or emotions with alcohol. People who grow up around alcohol or begin drinking at a young age may think drinking is normal.

Therapy teaches you healthy ways to cope with negative thoughts, feelings and emotions. It helps you understand that alcohol doesn’t have to be a part of your life.

Common therapy techniques for alcohol addiction and other co-occurring mental health issues include:

It’s important for patients to receive therapy in a residential setting after detox. Outpatient therapy can help people who have a strong support system and safe living environment. For most people, it’s important to develop coping skills before facing challenges in the real world.

Group Therapy

Most rehab centers introduce people to support groups during rehab. Alcoholics Anonymous is the most famous and popular support group for people with alcohol problems. Many rehab centers hold AA meetings in the facility.

Some centers walk patients through the 12 Steps of AA or other 12-step programs. Twelve-step facilitation therapy can increase a person’s likelihood to access support groups after rehab, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Other forms of therapy can also be performed in a group setting. Group therapy helps people learn from peers, realize that they aren’t the only ones struggling with alcohol and form support systems to rely on after rehab.

Supplemental Therapy

Inpatient facilities also offer supplemental therapies to aid recovery from alcoholism. Different forms of therapy may be appropriate for different types of patients.

Animal-assisted therapy can help individuals who are skeptical about treatment build stronger relationships with their therapists. It also teaches them about responsibility and empowerment, according to a variety of studies, including a 2009 article in the journal Anthrozoös.

Yoga and meditation can help patients relieve stress and improve concentration. It may also help improve self-awareness, which can reduce the risk of relapse, according to a 2013 review published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine.

Other forms of supplemental therapies for drinking problems, including art therapy, music therapy and acupuncture, may be beneficial for some people.

Outpatient Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorders

Inpatient therapy for alcoholism usually lasts 30 days. Treatment programs that last at least 90 days are usually more effective, according to NIDA. However, insurance doesn’t always cover multiple months of residential treatment.

More than 15 million people in the United States had an alcohol use disorder in 2016.

Outpatient rehab is the best option for people who continue treatment after inpatient rehab. Outpatient therapists use the same counseling techniques as inpatient therapists, but they usually meet with clients less often. It’s a less intensive phase of treatment.

During outpatient treatment, you’ll talk about ways to avoid alcohol and triggers. You’ll create strategies for overcoming cravings. After practicing those strategies in the real world, you’ll discuss what you learned with your therapist. You’ll determine what worked, what didn’t work and discuss new ways of approaching situations.

Depending on the rehab facility and your insurance plan, you may still be able to attend group therapy and supplemental therapy sessions. Many people attend 12-step programs or other support group meetings between outpatient therapy appointments.

How Carly Found Sobriety

Carly’s blog about her battle with alcoholism helps others overcome the disease and find their epic selves.

Read Her Story

Aftercare and Life in Sobriety

The final phase of recovery from alcoholism is indefinite. Alcohol rehab may officially end when you leave your last therapy appointment, but many people in recovery stay connected with their rehab provider for months after treatment.

Aftercare includes establishing a support system, finding safe housing, maintaining employment and accessing recovery resources. Top rehab facilities help clients create aftercare plans so they’re set up for success after their last appointment. Therapists and case managers can guide clients toward helpful resources in the community during this final stage of treatment.

Some addiction treatment centers own sober housing units that clients can transition to after treatment. Others recommend independent sober living homes. The alcohol-free living units house individuals in recovery who support one another during the initial months or years of recovery.

Many people continue attending support group meetings for the rest of their lives. Others slowly stop attending as they create other reliable forms of support, such as relationships with friends, family members and co-workers.

Attending rehab for alcoholism is a major commitment. It’s more successful if you’re ready and willing to stop drinking. If you are skeptical or hesitant about sobriety, your chances of recovery are low. People who work hard and believe they can stay sober are most likely to stay sober after alcohol rehab.

Joey Rosenberg
Joey Rosenberg Editor,
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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