How Long Does Alcohol Detox and Withdrawal Take?

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Detox is the process of eliminating toxins, such as alcohol, from the body. If you are alcohol-dependent and quit drinking abruptly, withdrawal symptoms may onset within a few hours after your last drink. These can last for several days, but the exact timeline depends on several factors, such as your level of dependence, intensity of alcohol use, and current health status. 

Because withdrawal symptoms can be highly unpleasant and possibly life-threatening, it is not recommended you attempt to detox alone. Instead, please seek treatment from licensed health providers and addiction specialists who will prioritize your safety and comfort throughout the withdrawal process and beyond.

Guardian Recovery offers clinically supervised detox programs that include medication-assisted treatment to manage withdrawal symptoms. Please contact us today to learn more about our comprehensive, individualized detox and addiction recovery approach.

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When Does Withdrawal Start?: Within Hours

Alcohol detox is the process of removing alcohol and other toxins from the body. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) often occurs during detox. It is hallmarked by a collection of physical and emotional symptoms that occur when an alcohol-dependent person suddenly stops drinking or significantly reduces their consumption.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you can begin to experience mild signs and symptoms of withdrawal within six hours after you’ve discontinued use.

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

For individuals with mild-moderate alcoholism, withdrawal symptoms last, on average, between 5-7 days.  If your alcoholism is severe, some withdrawal effects could persist for a week or more. For example, some psychological side effects may continue for several weeks unless appropriately addressed.  

The First Hours of Alcohol Detox

After taking your last drink, psychological detox symptoms will emerge within the first few hours, such as cravings, depression, anxiety, and irritability. In addition, you may experience nightmares, sleep disturbances, and insomnia.

Physical symptoms may include headache, nausea and vomiting, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, restlessness, and mild tremors.

The First Three Days of Alcohol Detox

Your symptoms may become more severe within 24-48 hours. However, they will vary depending on the severity of your alcohol use disorder and individual factorsSymptoms tend to peak in intensity in approximately 48-72 hours and include increased body temperature and irregular heart rate. In severe cases, a condition known as delirium tremens can manifest and last up to five days. 

What Is Delirium Tremens?

During the peak of withdrawal, people severely affected by alcohol use disorder may develop delirium tremens (DTs), characterized by profound confusion, hallucinations, intense tremors, and seizures. DTs usually take at least one or two days after the body is cleared of alcohol to emerge.

Although statistics report that only 3-5% of those hospitalized for alcohol withdrawal will experience this condition, it can occur without warning and be lethal, especially if not medically addressed. Therefore, alcohol withdrawal should be closely supervised by medical professionals who can continually monitor your vital signs and ensure your safety during the detox process. 

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is believed to be caused by various brain activity changes resulting from excessive, long-term alcohol use. Specifically, two chemicals contribute to both the short-term effects of drinking and the development of AWS when drinking is discontinued. These are GABA, an inhibitory chemical, and glutamate, an excitatory chemical.

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Therefore, when you drink alcohol, brain function slows, resulting in sedation and diminished anxiety. It does this by inhibiting glutamate receptors and enhancing GABA receptors in the CNS. Your brain activity is further disrupted when you stop or significantly reduce alcohol use. As a result, your CNS becomes hyper-excited as chemical inhibition declines significantly, leading to a range of withdrawal symptoms that can manifest within hours after your last drink.

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What Happens During Alcohol Detox and Withdrawal?

As noted, those with an alcohol use disorder should not attempt to go through withdrawal without medical oversight. If you are heavily dependent on alcohol and try to do this alone, you may not survive. Tragically, there have been many fatalities involving people who decided to quit cold turkey without understanding the potential consequences of doing so.

Medical Detox Is Safer, More Comfortable, and Helps Prevent Relapse

If you decide to undergo a medically-supervised detox, Guardian Recovery offers a safe, supportive, and comfortable setting to help you cope with withdrawal symptoms.

The goal of detox is to monitor and manage your withdrawal symptoms until your system is relatively stable. During this time, you may be administered medication to treat symptoms like nausea and vomiting, anxiety, seizures, and insomnia.

We will closely monitor your vital signs, including heart rate and blood pressure, and intervene medically to ensure they stay within normal levels. In addition, we will provide you with a healthy diet, lots of fluids, and options to help you sleep.

Common Alcohol Withdrawal and Detox Symptoms

As noted, the severity and duration of alcohol withdrawal largely depend on a person’s level of dependence. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be differentiated using the following three stages of severity: 

Stage 1 (Mild):

  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Abdominal pain and disturbances
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Heart palpitations

Stage 2 (Moderate):

  • Irritability and mood disturbances
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Elevated or irregular heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Profuse sweating
  • Mild hyperthermia

Stage 3 – Delirium Tremens (Severe):

  • Severe disorientation and confusion
  • Extreme agitation
  • Impaired attention
  • Visual or auditory hallucinations
  • Seizures

Earlier symptoms typically persist into later stages, but many people will not experience all three stages. Moreover, those with mild-moderate alcohol use disorders are less likely than those with severe disorders to experience the worst withdrawal effects, such as DTs.

Factors That Can Affect the Detox and Withdrawal Timeline

The severity of your alcohol tolerance and dependence will be the most significant factors affecting your detox and withdrawal timeline. However, increased alcohol use, medical issues, use of other drugs, and a greater number of prior withdrawal episodes can also increase the severity of withdrawal you experiences.

Other Factors Contributing to Withdrawal Can Include:

  • Age/weight/biological sex
  • Current health status and medical history
  • Family history of or genetic predisposition to alcohol and drug use
  • Co-occurring medical conditions, e.g., liver damage
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions, e.g., depression

Medical Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal

We typically address alcohol withdrawal using a mild anti-anxiety medication, such as Librium, to help relax the nervous system. For some individuals, we administer Serax, which is similar to Librium but gentler on the liver. To combat alcohol cravings and prevent relapse, we may also prescribe Antabuse.

Common symptoms of withdrawal include anxiety and sometimes panic attacks. Our first-line treatments for these are Vistaril or Catapres, and for more severe cases, we use Ativan. These medications are used temporarily to make the withdrawal process easier and more comfortable.

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Moving Beyond Detox and Withdrawal

For most people, completing the alcohol withdrawal process is not the end of treatment—it’s often just the beginning. Therefore, people in early recovery from alcohol use disorder are encouraged to enroll in a comprehensive addiction treatment program. 

By taking advantage of this option, you will be given the time, space, and support you need to work on altering your feelings and behaviors surrounding alcohol. You will also learn how to manage your cravings and identify more effective ways of handling stress.

When your physical symptoms have been treated, we can help you more effectively manage psychological symptoms contributing to the development of your disorder. We will also address emerging emotions associated with withdrawal and recovery, such as increased depression and anxiety. Fortunately, many mental health issues can be effectively managed by medications coupled with psychotherapy, counseling, and other forms of support.

Finally, relapse prevention is vital to any drug or alcohol treatment program. Peer groups such as 12-step programs and long-term individual therapy can offer aftercare, support, and accountability for as long as needed.

The Importance of Seeking Professional Help

Guardian Recovery is a comprehensive addiction treatment center staffed by highly-skilled health professionals. We provide individuals seeking recovery with the tools and support they need to experience long-term success and happiness.

If you are struggling with alcohol use disorder, please do not attempt to endure withdrawal and recovery alone. From detox to aftercare, we are dedicated to helping people free themselves from the shackles of addiction and reclaim the healthy, alcohol-free lives they deserve. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation health insurance benefit check.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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