How to Taper off Alcohol
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Alcohol tapering is a way to quit drinking while reducing your risk of withdrawal and complications. Making a plan for tapering alcohol is a crucial part of the process to ensure a healthy outcome.
Safe alcohol withdrawal is an important part of starting a recovery process. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous. For this reason, you should not abruptly stop alcohol use after a long period of heavy use without medical supervision. Instead, slowly cutting back on your drinking or using an alcohol tapering schedule is a safer method to become sober. Consultation with a medical professional or recovery coach is strongly recommended.
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If you have alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you cut back on your drinking or have previously gone through alcohol withdrawal, you are at higher risk of complications and should not try to quit on your own. In these cases, talk to your doctor before cutting back on your drinking. A medical detox and addiction treatment may be necessary.
Alcohol withdrawal occurs when you stop using alcohol after a prolonged period of heavy use. Alcohol withdrawal is the most dangerous form of substance withdrawal, creating unpleasant symptoms that can be potentially deadly for those with more severe symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal will last about a week to a week and a half for most people, with symptoms peaking two to three days into withdrawal.
Why Does Alcohol Withdrawal Occur?
When you drink heavily, alcohol is present in your bloodstream constantly. Alcohol suppresses your brain’s normal function, and your body adjusts to this constant presence of alcohol by making your brain more hyperactive. This increased hyperactivity, combined with the suppressing effect of alcohol, helps your brain function more normally. This process is called dependence because your brain depends on alcohol being present to function normally.
Alcohol withdrawal occurs when alcohol use is suddenly stopped, removing its suppressing effect. Your brain will still be hyperactive and take about a week to 10 days to readjust. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are related to the hyperactivity of your brain and will continue until your brain fully adjusts to the absence of alcohol.
Alcohol Withdrawal: Symptoms and Timeline
If you drink frequently, you can become physically dependent on alcohol, meaning your brain needs alcohol to function normally. If you stop drinking, your body must rapidly adjust to the absence of alcohol, leading to withdrawal symptoms.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Tremors or shaking
- Trouble sleeping
- Nausea or vomiting
- Anxiety, jitters or jumpiness
Generally, alcohol withdrawal starts within eight hours of the last drink but can occur anytime within the first several days after you stop drinking. In most cases, alcohol withdrawal symptoms peak after 24–72 hours but may continue for weeks.
Can You Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey?
You can quit alcohol cold turkey. This is the most commonly accepted method of stopping alcohol by the medical community. However, there are risks to this method, and someone stopping alcohol should receive medical monitoring and care if they are likely to experience moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms. Quitting cold turkey allows the shortest detox period and a rapid transition into the next recovery stages.
What Is an Alcohol Taper?
An alcohol taper is slowly reducing your alcohol intake. When you gradually drink less instead of quitting cold turkey, you give your body a chance to get used to smaller amounts of alcohol. This may reduce the risk or severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, but it will lengthen the time it takes to stop using alcohol and reduce the likelihood of your efforts being successful.
How to Taper off Alcohol Safely
Alcohol tapering has not been widely studied, so avoid quitting alcohol on your own — including with a taper — if you have risk factors for severe withdrawal symptoms. In these cases, you should seek a doctor’s advice before cutting back on your drinking. They may recommend a medically supervised alcohol detox clinic. Risk factors for serious withdrawal symptoms include:
- Having previously undergone alcohol withdrawal
- Having other medical conditions, including mental health problems or traumatic brain injury
- Being older than 65
- Chronically drinking heavily
- Taking other addictive substances, including depressants such as benzodiazepines or barbiturates
Alcohol Tapering Schedule
Reducing alcohol consumption should begin with determining your baseline of use since your taper schedule depends on how much you drink before you start decreasing your intake. To calculate your baseline, you must know how many standard drinks you consume daily.
One standard drink is equal to:
- 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer
- 8 ounces of 7% malt liquor
- 5 ounces of 12% wine
- 1.5 ounces of 40% distilled spirits
Alcohol Tapering Calculator
Because alcohol tapering has not been widely studied, little information is available on the safety and effectiveness of alcohol tapering calculators. However, some organizations have tried to guide those trying to cut back on drinking on their own. A sample taper is as follows:
If you drink fewer than 20 standard drinks a day before you start your taper:
- Reduce your intake by two drinks daily until you get to zero.
If you drink 20 or more standard drinks a day before you start your taper:
- Day one: Starting when you wake up, have one drink an hour for 16 drinks.
- Day two: Have one drink every hour and a half for 10 drinks.
- Days three through seven: Reduce your intake by two drinks daily until you reach zero.
There is no widely accepted schedule, and you can develop one that meets your needs. The key is to adhere to the plan you have developed consistently.
5 Tips for Tapering off Alcohol
Developing a proactive plan for tapering alcohol is an important step. The more aware you are of potential risk factors and your needs, the more likely you will succeed.
Tell Someone What You’re Doing
As you begin your alcohol tapering process, talk to someone you trust about your plan. Consulting with a medical professional is highly recommended. Consider sharing your process with a friend or family member so they can offer helpful support.
Calculate a Healthy Tapering Plan
If you have been drinking heavily, reducing your alcohol consumption gradually can help you avoid severe withdrawal symptoms that can result in major health concerns and, in severe cases, death.
Try To Eat Well and Stay Hydrated
Tapering from alcohol can be exhausting and taxing on the body. Try to maintain a healthy diet and drink enough water to avoid dehydration during this time.
Reduce Excessive Activity Levels
Your body needs time to adjust to the changes it will experience. Respect your body’s need to heal and avoid any extreme activity levels beyond what you would normally do.
Sit With Your Feelings and Be Mindful About Replacement Addictions
Behavioral changes are difficult to maintain. It can be tempting to throw yourself into an alternative behavior or substance use in order to distract from the difficulties of recovery. If you notice an urge to use other substances, observe your feelings and consider talking to a counselor to help navigate the emotional impact of tapering your alcohol use.
How To Modify the Alcohol Tapering Schedule Over Time
The guidelines for tapering from alcohol are generalized; you may need to modify the tapering schedule if you have difficulties with the original plan. The risk of tapering too quickly is potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms, and the risk of tapering too slowly is a decreased probability of completing the taper.
How quickly can you taper off alcohol? It depends on your individual metabolism and withdrawal symptoms. The purpose of alcohol tapering is typically to avoid some of the more dangerous symptoms of detox. The length of time for alcohol tapering depends entirely on your baseline of use. Ask loved ones to look out for signs of alcohol relapse to help you stay on track with your recovery process.
Consider a Medical Detox
While a taper may seem appealing to some, it is not a medically recommended method of detoxing from alcohol due to the increased risk of not completing it. Medical detox involves stopping alcohol all at once and managing withdrawal symptoms through medications and other treatments instead of reducing them with a taper.
A medical detox reduces the potential dangers of alcohol withdrawal by ensuring medical monitoring and assistance are present. It also increases the chances of success by completing the detox quickly instead of dragging it out for weeks like a taper can.
Long-Term Impact of Alcohol Use and the Need for Tapering
Heavy alcohol use over a long-term basis can lead to many health complications. The long-term effects of alcohol include:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Cancer of the breast, mouth, esophagus, liver, colon, and many other areas
- Suppressed immune system
- Liver disease
- Alcohol addiction
- Kidney damage
There are many other potential diseases that long-term alcohol use can cause, and it is important to stop using alcohol heavily if you are. A taper may help you to get off of alcohol; however, medical detox is typically recommended as the best way to stop using alcohol.
Strategies for Preventing Relapse Post-Tapering
Stopping alcohol use is only the first step in recovery. One of the more difficult parts is maintaining sobriety after you achieve it. Professional help, such as a support group or addiction rehab center, can provide the support and help you need to overcome the long-term cravings that occur and keep your newfound sobriety long into the future.
Aftercare: What To Do After Detox
Once your alcohol tapering schedule is complete, maintenance begins. You must continue abstaining from alcohol and monitor cravings or urges to drink. Don’t try to go through recovery alone — reach out for help and support. The support of family, friends and others in recovery is crucial during this adjustment period.
However, help and support aren’t just something for when you finish detoxing; it is also important while initially stopping alcohol. You should not expect to face it alone. The Recovery Village at Baptist Health can help you start your recovery with alcohol addiction treatment — safely, comfortably and with your future in mind. Reach out to one of our Recovery Advocates and begin the healing process.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.
American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). “Clinical Practice Guideline on Alcohol Withdrawal Management.” January 23, 2020. Accessed March 5, 2022.
Clapp, P; Bhave, SV; et al. “How adaptation of the brain to alcohol leads to dependence: a pharmacological perspective.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed March 5, 2022.
The HAMS Harm Reduction Network, Inc. “How To Taper Off Alcohol.” Accessed March 5, 2022.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol.” December 29, 2020. Accessed March 5, 2022.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” April 14, 2022. July 27, 2023.