Inpatient and outpatient treatment options are available for alcohol use disorder (AUD). The right treatment for each person will depend on their unique circumstances, including their medical and social needs.

“Alcohol rehab” is not a medically accurate term. However, people sometimes use it to describe treatment for AUD. This medical condition impairs the ability to stop or manage alcohol use despite negative impacts on health, social life, or work.

According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 29.5 million people aged 12 years and older in the United States had AUD in the previous year. It is important that each individual with the condition can find the right treatment option for their needs.

This article will describe what inpatient and outpatient alcohol treatment services are, how they differ, their benefits and drawbacks, and how to choose the most suitable form.

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A person who chooses an inpatient service will live at a hospital or professional clinic while undergoing treatment. In some cases, the definition of inpatient treatment might also include having treatment very near the facility where a person lives.

When might a person need it?

Inpatient services can help people who need nurses or doctors to monitor them 24 hours a day during treatment due to their individual circumstances.

This can include situations in which a person:

A doctor may refer someone with severe or complicated AUD to a residential service.

A person who chooses outpatient services for AUD goes to a clinic or treatment facility during the day and returns home afterward.

People undergoing outpatient treatment can visit friends and family whenever they want, go to work or school, and maintain their hobbies.

Inpatient and outpatient treatment for AUD differ according to how people receive treatment and how they live while not having treatment.

While people receiving outpatient care do not live at the rehabilitation facility, intensive outpatient treatment programs often provide the same level of treatment as inpatient treatment programs that require a person to live onsite.


The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) helps explain the benefits and drawbacks of both forms of treatment for AUD.

Inpatient service benefits

Benefits of inpatient treatment may include:

  • Close, 24-hour medical supervision: A person receives immediate medical attention and support for any emotional issues, physical symptoms, cravings, or complications that may arise during withdrawal.
  • Limiting access: Being at an inpatient facility makes it very difficult to access alcohol.
  • Support of peers: A person lives surrounded by others with similar experiences.
  • Structured and intensive treatment: The inpatient environment may help distract a person from withdrawal symptoms, cravings, or other issues that could trigger a feeling of need to use alcohol.

Outpatient service benefits

The benefits of outpatient treatment can include:

  • The ability to continue typical life activities: A person may be able to continue with daily activities in their family, work, school, etc.
  • Immediate application of learning: Outpatient treatment allows a person to practice what they learn on the program in the real world as they go.
  • Confidentiality: A person does not need to explain to coworkers and peers that they are taking time out for an AUD treatment program if they would prefer not to.
  • Social support: A person can develop a strong and diverse social support network among other individuals in recovery.
  • Financial outlay: Outpatient treatment typically has a lower cost than inpatient treatment.


According to the ASAM, each form of treatment also has potential downsides.

Inpatient service drawbacks

The drawbacks of inpatient treatment can include:

  • Lack of insurance coverage: Inpatient treatment typically costs much more than outpatient treatment, and most insurance plans will not cover the entire amount.
  • Activity restriction: A person will not be able to continue their typical life activities while receiving inpatient care.
  • Only meeting acute care needs: Most inpatient treatment programs are time-limited with designs to meet a person’s acute needs. If a person does not continue with treatment after their inpatient stay, they can often experience further bouts of AUD.

Outpatient service drawbacks

Potential drawbacks of outpatient treatment include:

  • Limited window of care: Outpatient treatment does not provide 24-hour medical care if a person needs it. They cannot always receive immediate assistance in case of emergency.
  • Difficulty with monitoring: Outpatient care providers have greater difficulty determining whether a person is avoiding alcohol use.
  • Outside influence: People may find it difficult not to drink alcohol if they are in social situations in which they would usually drink.

Inpatient and outpatient treatment both have their pros and cons. Inpatient programs tend to provide the same quality of treatment as long-term outpatient treatment programs, and the two have comparable success rates.

An inpatient treatment program may be more helpful to a person who needs to manage the withdrawal process from alcohol. It may also be especially beneficial to people with a severe psychiatric illness or other serious medical condition and those experiencing an impaired ability to function socially.

Inpatient services should have mechanisms in place to provide adequate support to people in these situations.

However, according to the American Addiction Centres, people who participate in an inpatient treatment program alone without any follow-up as part of a long-term outpatient program are much more likely to experience cravings after the program. This often results in a return to alcohol misuse.

A person can choose from a range of different options to help with beginning the process of recovery from AUD. There is no one-size-fits-all program that everyone must follow.

A person can first speak with their doctor, who can refer them to appropriate support services for their needs. They may also prescribe medications where necessary.

Some people may find it helpful to participate in counseling or other treatments that focus on adjusting behaviors. Others may benefit from joining a 12-step support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Although “alcohol rehab” is not a medically accurate term, some people use it to describe treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD). Inpatient treatment involves living at a treatment facility for a period. A person does not live at a facility during outpatient treatment for AUD.

Inpatient treatment may be particularly beneficial for people at risk of experiencing moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal. However, outpatient treatment is equally important, as it allows a person to put treatment learnings into practice in the real world on an ongoing basis.

People seeking treatment for AUD can speak with their doctor, who can provide immediate support and refer them to the best services for their individual needs.