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Inpatient vs. Outpatient Alcohol Rehab: Which Is Right For You?

Medically Reviewed by Nicole Arzt, LMFT on January 13, 2021
If you’re having trouble stopping or controlling your drinking, you may be considering different alcoholism treatment programs. Here's everything you need to know.

Regardless of whether you choose an inpatient or an outpatient program, recovery often starts with detoxification, or clearing the alcohol out of your system. If you’ve become dependent on alcohol, you may have symptoms of withdrawal when you stop drinking. That’s why it’s important to ask your doctor to help you detox safely. You may need hospital care to avoid dangerous health complications.

Getting alcohol out of the body is just the first step. Over time a drinking problem can rewire your brain to want alcohol, “so getting into treatment and into some sort of support system that will allow the person to continue to stay sober over time is critical,” Margie Skeer, ScD, an associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends that you see a trained healthcare professional for an evaluation. That way, they can suggest a treatment plan that’s right for you.

Inpatient Alcohol Rehab: How It Works

If your doctor determines that you have a severe alcohol use disorder, limited social support, unstable living situation, or other health conditions, they may recommend an inpatient rehabilitation program, the NIAAA says. 

These residential programs provide highly structured 24-hour care and are usually run by licensed alcohol and drug counselors and mental health professionals. Short-term programs can last 3 to 6 weeks, followed by outpatient treatment. Long-term programs can last 6 to 12 months. 

Inpatient treatment typically includes: 

  • Medically managed detox 

  • Individual therapy 

  • Support groups 

  • Skill-building sessions 

  • Medication management 

  • Follow-up treatment and aftercare planning

Outpatient Alcohol Rehab: How It Works

If your doctor determines that you have a less-severe alcohol use disorder, a social support system, a stable living environment, and good physical health, they might recommend an outpatient treatment program, the NIAAA says. 

These programs vary in length and intensity, but they generally allow you to keep up your normal routine. 

Outpatient treatment can involve therapy, group counseling, or a 12-step program. These sessions typically focus on substance abuse education, relapse prevention, stress management, communication skills, and goal setting. Some people also transition to outpatient care after completing an inpatient episode. This step-down in care balances independence with support and accountability.

Get Help Now

If you’re struggling with alcohol, talk to your doctor and loved ones about it as soon as possible. Early treatment makes you less likely to develop a serious an alcohol use disorder, Skeer says. 

And if you’re already in the early stages of a disorder,  treatment can keep it from getting worse.  Untreated alcohol dependence can interfere with school, work, and relationships. It can also have serious short- and long-term effects, including liver disease, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. 

Life After Alcohol Addiction Treatment