How Long Does It Take To Detox From Alcohol?: A Timeline
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While the alcohol detox timeline can differ from person to person, symptoms will often gradually improve and dissipate over several days.
Stopping alcohol can be difficult, and knowing what to expect is important. If you have been using alcohol frequently over a prolonged period, withdrawal symptoms can develop. Understanding and anticipating these symptoms will help position you for success.
Article at a Glance
- Alcohol withdrawal happens when your brain adjusts to the constant presence of alcohol.
- Alcohol withdrawal causes symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening.
- There is a timeline that can roughly predict what will happen during alcohol withdrawal.
- Alcohol withdrawal is different for everyone, and some factors affect it.
- Professional help and support can make alcohol withdrawal safer and more comfortable.
Understanding Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal happens after your brain makes changes because of the presence of alcohol. When alcohol is constantly in your bloodstream, your body adjusts to its suppressing effects. Your brain becomes more hyperactive to offset the impact of alcohol, allowing the hyperactivity and suppression to cancel each other, leading to balanced brain function.
Withdrawal symptoms occur when you suddenly stop using alcohol. This removes the suppression alcohol creates while the brain is still hyperactive, resulting in unbalanced hyperactivity. Your brain takes several days to readjust. During this detox period, withdrawal symptoms occur.
Identifying Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal happens when someone who drinks a lot of alcohol regularly stops or cuts back suddenly. It causes several different symptoms that can range from mild to very serious. The severity of symptoms someone will experience vary based on how heavily and how long they have been using alcohol. Knowing these signs is important because it helps you get the right help and treatment based on your situation.
Mild Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms can start within a day after the last drink. The symptoms you might experience with mild alcohol withdrawal can include:
- Sweaty, clammy skin
Mild symptoms are usually not very dangerous but can be very uncomfortable. Doctors or other health care providers can provide medicine to help reduce these symptoms or give advice to make the symptoms more bearable.
Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms are more serious and can happen within two to three days after stopping drinking. Some of the more severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Decreased level of consciousness
- Slowed or irregular breathing
- Severe mood swings
- Slowed pulse
Someone with severe withdrawal symptoms needs medical help right away. They might need to go to the hospital to be monitored and given specialized medications to help control their symptoms.
What Is Delirium Tremens?
Delirium tremens, often called “DTs,” is the most dangerous complication of alcohol withdrawal and can happen within two to four days after your last drink. A person with delirium tremens might be very confused, have hallucinations, shake a lot or have an elevated fever and high blood pressure. It can be deadly if not treated right away. Up to 37% of people with delirium tremens will die if they do not receive medical attention. Someone with delirium tremens must be treated in a hospital setting to help them avoid the complications it can create.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal is caused by stopping alcohol use after dependence develops. Dependence is the condition in which the brain adjusts to accommodate the presence of alcohol. For dependence to occur, you must have alcohol in your bloodstream most of the time, which requires heavy and frequent alcohol use.
Once dependence occurs, withdrawal will happen whenever you stop using alcohol and will last about a week to a week and a half. If dependence is present, withdrawal will occur if you stop using alcohol. You can do things to reduce the intensity of withdrawal or treat symptoms that develop; however, withdrawal will be inevitable.
What Is the Difference Between Withdrawal and Detox?
The terms withdrawal and detox are often used interchangeably, and it can be confusing to figure out the difference between them, which is only slight. Technically, detox is the process of stopping alcohol and allowing your body to adjust, while withdrawal refers to the symptoms that occur during detox. Withdrawal can ultimately be thought of as a part of detox.
Alcohol Detox Timeline
As you detox from alcohol, your body goes through different processes and stages after you stop drinking. While this timeline can differ from person to person, it usually follows a general pattern. Here’s what a person might experience at different times after they stop drinking:
Mild withdrawal symptoms, including shaky hands, sweating, headaches and anxiety, may start within the first 6–12 hours after the last drink. You might find it hard to sleep and may feel restless or irritable. Those with more mild dependence may not experience any symptoms this soon after stopping drinking.
During the 12–24 hours, symptoms may continue and worsen. New mild symptoms that didn’t appear in the first 12 hours will begin to appear in this timeframe, and existing symptoms will intensify.
Between 24–48 hours after stopping alcohol, the symptoms will keep worsening. Insomnia and nausea can develop during this time. Some people might experience seizures, which are brain activity abnormalities that lead to sudden, uncontrolled shaking or jerking movements. This stage can be dangerous, and medical help is very important if moderate to severe symptoms occur.
In the 48–72-hour time frame, symptoms will typically peak, reaching their highest intensity. During this time, you might experience the most severe withdrawal symptoms, like delirium tremens. This includes serious confusion, shaking, hallucinations and high fever. This stage is very dangerous and can be life-threatening without medical help for those with serious alcohol dependence.
After 72 hours, symptoms will usually slowly get better, gradually improving and dissipating over the next several days. However, psychological symptoms, like cravings, depression or anxiety, may last several weeks or months after their physical symptoms are gone. You might need ongoing help from healthcare providers or support groups to deal with cravings and learn how to live without alcohol.
Factors That Affect the Alcohol Detox Timeline
Several factors can affect the timeline an individual can expect when detoxing from alcohol. These include:
- The amount of alcohol used: The more alcohol you drink each day, the higher the amount of alcohol constantly in your blood, and the more your brain will have to adjust.
- The frequency of alcohol use: The more frequently you use alcohol, the more constant the level of alcohol in your bloodstream will be, making your brain adjust more.
- Your genetics: Genes can influence how quickly you metabolize alcohol, affecting your dependence.
- Previous detox: Your risk of experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms increases with each detox. If you have detoxed before, you are at a greater risk of a longer detox and more severe symptoms.
What Are the Long-Term Implications of Alcohol Withdrawal?
Over the long term, alcohol withdrawal is unlikely to cause significant harm and will provide tremendous health benefits. Long-term complications can occur from a seizure or DTs; however, these are rarely a problem if medical treatment is provided during detox. After physical symptoms are over, medically detoxing from alcohol can help you avoid potential health problems, such as cancer, liver disease, pancreatitis and many other diseases caused by alcohol.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Withdrawal
Many different treatment options for alcohol withdrawal exist, depending on the individual. Those likely to only experience mild withdrawal symptoms may be able to detox by themselves at home, potentially with medicines prescribed by a doctor.
Those likely to have more severe symptoms should undergo a medical detox, monitored by trained medical professionals who can recognize complications quickly and treat them as they develop.
In addition to detox treatment options, long-term symptoms, cravings or difficulties coping without alcohol may require rehab. This can be inpatient or outpatient, including medications, therapy, group sessions and other treatment options. Ultimately, each person’s alcohol withdrawal treatment should be individualized to meet their needs and lifestyle.
Importance of Seeking Professional Help
Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening and is the most dangerous form of substance withdrawal someone can undergo. Because alcohol withdrawal can be so serious, anyone withdrawing from alcohol should speak with a doctor before stopping alcohol.
Medically-supervised withdrawal may not always be necessary but can be incredibly beneficial for someone at risk for more severe withdrawal symptoms. Medical professionals recognize and treat dangerous conditions in real-time and can make the entire withdrawal process more comfortable.
The Recovery Village at Baptist Health Is Here To Help
At The Recovery Village at Baptist Health, we provide a wide range of high-quality alcohol addiction recovery programs suited to your needs and lifestyle. Our caring, expert staff are committed to supporting you and your success through each step of your addiction recovery journey. Contact us today to learn how we can help you overcome alcohol addiction for good.
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Newman, Richard K.; Gallagher, Megan A. Stobart; & Gomez, Anna E. “Alcohol Withdrawal.” StatPearls. August 29, 2022. Accessed August 7, 2023.