If you make the decision to stop drinking daily and heavily, you will likely experience withdrawal symptoms. The time it takes to detox depends on a few factors, including how much you drink, how long you’ve been drinking, and whether you’ve gone through detox before.
Most people stop having detox symptoms four to five days after their last drink.
Read on to learn more about what time frame to expect when detoxing from alcohol.
According to a 2013 literature review in the
Minor withdrawal symptoms usually begin about six hours after your last drink. A person who has a long history of heavy drinking could have a seizure six hours after stopping drinking.
12 to 24 hours
A small percentage of people going through alcohol withdrawal have hallucinations at this point. They may hear or see things that aren’t there. While this symptom can be scary, doctors don’t consider it a serious complication.
24 to 48 hours
Minor withdrawal symptoms usually continue during this time. These symptoms may include headache, tremors, and stomach upset. If a person goes through only minor withdrawal, their symptoms usually peak at 18 to 24 hours and start to decrease after four to five days.
48 hours to 72 hours
Some people experience a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that doctors call the delirium tremens (DTs) or alcohol withdrawal delirium. A person with this condition can have a very high heart rate, seizures, or a high body temperature.
This is the time when alcohol withdrawal symptoms are usually at their worst. In rare cases, moderate withdrawal symptoms can last for a month. These include rapid heart rate and illusions (seeing things that aren’t there).
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. This causes feelings of relaxation and euphoria. Because the body usually works to maintain balance, it will signal the brain to make more neurotransmitter receptors that excite or stimulate the central nervous system.
When you stop drinking, you take away alcohol not only from the receptors you originally had but also from the additional receptors your body made. As a result, your nervous system is overactive. This causes symptoms such as:
- rapid heart rate
In severe instances, you may experience DTs. Symptoms doctors associate with DTs include:
- high body temperature
These are the most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
According to a 2015 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, an estimated 50 percent of people with an alcohol use disorder go through withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. Doctors estimate 3 to 5 percent of people will have severe symptoms.
Multiple factors can affect how long it may take you to withdraw from alcohol. A doctor will consider all these factors when estimating how long-lasting and how severe your symptoms may be.
Risk factors for DTs include:
- abnormal liver function
- history of DTs
- history of seizures with alcohol withdrawals
- low platelet counts
- low potassium levels
- low sodium levels
- older age at time of withdrawal
- preexisting dehydration
- presence of brain lesions
- use of other drugs
If you have any of these risk factors, it’s important that you withdraw from alcohol at a medical facility that’s equipped to prevent and treat alcohol-related complications.
Some rehabilitation facilities offer a rapid detox process. This involves giving a person sedative medication so they are not awake and aware of their symptoms. However, this approach is not well suited for those with other health problems, such as heart or liver problems.
To assess a person’s withdrawal symptoms and recommend treatments, doctors often use a scale called the Clinical Institute for Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol. The higher the number, the worse a person’s symptoms are and the more treatments they likely need.
You may not need any medications for alcohol withdrawal. You can still pursue therapy and support groups as you go through withdrawal.
You may need medications if you have moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms. Examples of these include:
- Benzodiazepines. Doctors prescribe these medicines to reduce the likelihood of seizures during alcohol withdrawals. Examples include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), and lorazepam (Ativan). Doctors often choose these drugs to treat alcohol withdrawals.
- Neuroleptic medications. These medications can help depress nervous system activity and may be helpful in preventing seizures and agitation associated with alcohol withdrawal.
- Nutritional support. Doctors may administer nutrients such as folic acid, thiamine, and magnesium to reduce withdrawal symptoms and to correct nutrient deficiencies caused by alcohol use.
Doctors may prescribe other medications to treat withdrawal-related symptoms. One example is a beta-blocker (such as propranolol) to reduce high blood pressure.
Once the immediate withdrawal symptoms have passed, a doctor may prescribe medicines to reduce the likelihood that a person will start drinking again. Examples include:
- disulfiram (Antabuse). This medication can reduce alcohol cravings and makes a person feel very ill if they drink while taking it.
- naltrexone (ReVia). Naltrexone can reduce alcohol cravings and help a person maintain their abstinence from alcohol by blocking opioid (feel-good) receptors in their body.
- topiramate (Topamax). This medicine may help reduce alcohol consumption and extend the periods of abstinence from alcohol abuse.
A doctor may discuss these and other medicines with you. You can choose to use these along with therapy and support groups to help you maintain your sobriety.
If your drinking makes you feel out of control and you are ready to seek help, many organizations can assist you.
Where to start:
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP
- This helpline provides around-the-clock support for individuals and their family members struggling with substance abuse.
- Helpline operators can help you find a treatment facility, therapist, support group, or other resources to stop drinking.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also offers an Alcohol Treatment Navigator tool that can help you find the right treatments for you that are close to home.
Other online resources that offer well-researched information and support include:
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Your primary care provider can advise you on where to seek care for the physical and mental symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. It’s very important to seek help if you struggle with alcohol abuse. It is possible to get treatment and live a healthy, sober life.
In fact, an estimated one-third of people who receive treatment for alcohol issues are sober one year later, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
In addition to the sober individuals, many people among the remaining two-thirds are also drinking less and experiencing fewer alcohol-related health problems after one year.
If you are concerned about potential alcohol withdrawal symptoms, talk to your doctor. A doctor can evaluate your overall health and alcohol abuse history to help you determine how likely it is that you’ll experience symptoms.