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.

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 trying to cut back on your drinking. A medical detox and addiction treatment may be necessary.

What Is an Alcohol Taper?

An alcohol taper is the process of slowly reducing your alcohol intake. When you gradually drink less instead of quit cold turkey, you give your body a chance to get used to smaller amounts of alcohol. This may reduce the risk of alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol Withdrawal: Symptoms and Timeline

If you drink frequently, you can become physically dependent on alcohol, meaning that your brain needs alcohol to function normally. If you stop drinking, your body needs to rapidly adjust to the absence of alcohol, leading to withdrawal symptoms.

Specifically, excessive drinking can cause an imbalance in the important brain neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Because of alcohol, your brain adjusts the amount of GABA it makes. If you suddenly stop drinking, your brain will not have enough GABA and can become hyper-excitable, leading to uncomfortable and dangerous withdrawal symptoms like increased heart rate and seizure.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Sweating
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Tremors or shaking
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety, jitters or jumpiness
  • Seizures

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.

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 serious withdrawal symptoms. In these cases, you should seek the advice of a doctor 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 years old
  • Chronically drinking heavily
  • Taking other addictive substances, including depressants such as benzodiazepines or barbiturates

Alcohol Tapering Schedule

The process of reducing alcohol consumption should begin with 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 need to know how many standard drinks you drink in a day.

One standard drink is equal to:

  • 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer
  • Eight ounces of 7% malt liquor
  • Five 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 provide guidance to those who are 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 per day 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 a total of 16 drinks.
  • Day two: Have one drink every hour and a half for a total of 10 drinks.
  • Days three through seven: Reduce your intake by two drinks a day until you get to zero.

5 Tips for Tapering Off Alcohol

Developing a proactive plan for tapering alcohol is an important step in the process. The more aware you are of potential risk factors and your individual 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 an increased likelihood of relapse. 

How quickly can you taper off alcohol? It depends on your individual metabolism and withdrawal symptoms. The purpose of alcohol tapering is 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.

Aftercare: What to Do After Detox

Once your alcohol tapering schedule is complete, the work of maintenance begins. Continue to abstain from alcohol and monitor cravings or urges to drink. Don’t try to go through the recovery process alone — reach out for help and support. The support of family, friends, and others in recovery is crucial during this period of adjustment.

Alcohol abstinence can feel impossible early in the recovery process, and you should not expect yourself to face it alone. The Recovery Village Palm Beach Florida at Baptist Health can help you get started on your recovery with alcohol addiction treatment — safely, comfortably and with your future in mind. Reach out to one of our supportive professionals 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.