When a person decides to stop drinking, they are likely to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The detox process for alcohol can take several days or several weeks, depending on multiple individual factors. Alcohol detox will be different for everybody, but there are some common symptoms to expect during this time.
What is alcohol detox?
Alcohol detox is an important step in treating an alcohol use disorder. The process involves flushing alcohol from the body completely and can often result in withdrawal symptoms. When someone’s body becomes dependent on alcohol over time, they develop alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. Because your body is receiving chemicals from alcohol, your brain stops producing those specific chemicals, causing a dependency.
Making the decision to quit drinking is far from easy, but it is crucial to a person’s health and overall well-being. Prolonged alcohol consumption in excessive amounts leads to a buildup of toxins and waste products in the body. Alcohol detox begins the addiction treatment process as the body rids itself of toxins.
Alcohol detox is different for everyone
No two people will experience alcohol detox the same. There are many factors that impact alcohol withdrawal, including how long a person has been drinking. An alcohol use disorder causes biological changes and increases tolerance, which impacts the body in different ways. Just as the path to developing an alcohol use disorder and the stages of alcoholism differ by person, so do the stages of alcohol withdrawal and detox.
For some, withdrawal symptoms may only last a few days. Others may experience symptoms for weeks. The unpredictable nature of alcohol detox and withdrawal makes it imperative to seek professional medical treatment during this time. A person does not know how their body will react or how the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome will affect them.
Mild to moderate alcohol addiction
It is estimated that 50% of people experience withdrawal symptoms if they have an alcohol use disorder and stop drinking. In the early stages of alcoholism, the body is building a drinking tolerance as it adapts. Mild to moderate alcoholism can result in withdrawal symptoms within eight hours of the last drink. While the process differs by individual, the effects of withdrawal typically peek after 72 hours and reduce within a week.
Severe alcohol abuse
Among people with an alcohol use disorder, three to five percent of people are estimated to experience severe withdrawal symptoms. Detox can last longer for people with severe alcoholism and the symptoms can be more intense. Late-stage alcoholism can result in withdrawal symptoms like delirium, hallucinations, and tremors. Delirium tremens is not common but requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms can last multiple days and potentially lead to death.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
Alcohol detox should be conducted in a controlled environment, such as a medical treatment center. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe and potentially life-threatening, so they require proper monitoring and medical attention. Suddenly stopping the body’s supply of alcohol can lead to shock and many adverse effects on both the body and brain.
Alcohol can cause feelings of relaxation because it depresses the body’s central nervous system. The body produces additional neurotransmitter receptors to stimulate the central nervous system in an attempt to maintain balance. When a person stops drinking, their body is left with extra receptors and the central nervous system is overactive.
Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Nausea & Vomiting
- Rapid heart rate
- Tremors & Shaky hands
- Mood swings
- Changes in appetite
Symptoms of delirium tremens
Delirium tremens, or DTs, are a more severe symptom of alcohol withdrawal that can occur 48 to 72 hours after the last drink. DTs are the most severe symptom and can last two to three days, or more depending on the severity of withdrawal. In some cases, DTs can lead to death, so it is advised to seek medical attention during alcohol detox and withdrawal. Symptoms associated with delirium tremens include:
- High body temperature
- Hallucinations or illusions
- High blood pressure
- Heavy sweating
- Racing heart
General timeline for detoxing from Alcohol
The timeline for alcohol detox will be different for everyone, but there are some commonalities. Symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol can begin within hours after the last drink and last for days or weeks, depending on the severity of withdrawal. A person who has dealt with alcoholism for many years may experience a longer detox period than someone who has been in the stages of alcoholism for a few months.
6 hours after the last drink
Within several hours of the last drink, a person may experience cravings for alcohol. This stage of alcohol withdrawal may be familiar to some as they might experience it anytime they go several hours without a drink. There is likely to be a strong feeling of “need” for a drink, especially after waking up.
Early symptoms of withdrawal can also include shakiness in the hands or an overall feeling of unease. Anxiety and restlessness are also common. Heavy drinkers or those with a longer history of alcoholism may experience more severe symptoms, including seizures at this time.
12 to 24 hours after the last drink
Anxiety and nausea are common symptoms of withdrawal within 12 to 24 hours after the last drink. People may experience abdominal pain and a loss of appetite. Symptoms move from mild to moderate, including mental confusion. Breathing difficulties, irregular heartbeat, and increased blood pressure are also possible during this time.
In severe cases of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, hallucinations are possible. The percentage of people who hear or see things that are not actually there is small at this stage of alcohol withdrawal. While these symptoms can be scary, they are not considered serious if the person is under proper medical care.
24 to 48 hours after the last drink
If a person experiences minor withdrawal, symptoms may peak during this period and then start to decrease. For others, mild to moderate symptoms are likely to continue through the second day. Fever, irregular heartbeat, sweating, and irritability are common withdrawal symptoms during this stage. Abnormal vital signs are more common, including high blood pressure and respiration.
48 to 72 hours after the last drink
Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms can occur 48 to 72 hours after the last drink. If a person experiences delirium tremens they are at risk for worsened symptoms. It is possible to experience seizures, fever, high heart rate, confusion, hallucinations, agitation, and other severe symptoms during this time.
DTs and seizures can occur during the alcohol detox process without warning, and delirium tremens can potentially be fatal. It is extremely important that a person going through alcohol detox seek medical attention during the process, so that a medical professional can closely monitor their withdrawal symptoms.
After 72 hours
After a few days of not drinking, symptoms become lighter for the majority of people with an alcohol use disorder. In many cases, symptoms will return to moderate or mild levels and decrease within five to seven days. Depending on how much a person drinks and how long they have been drinking, withdrawal symptoms can linger for days or weeks.
Factors that influence the detox process
There are many factors that can influence the timeline and severity of alcohol detox for someone with an alcohol use disorder. The two biggest factors are a person’s tolerance and the severity of addiction. Previous detox experiences, the length of alcohol dependency, and many other factors can impact how a person detoxes from alcohol. Common factors that impact the length and severity of detox from alcohol include:
- Tolerance to alcohol
- Severity of addiction
- How long someone has been dependent on alcohol
- Average amount of alcohol consumed
- Binge drinking vs. drinking at a steady rate
- Tobacco use
- Drug use or drug addiction
- Mental health
- Physical health
- Approach to detox
For the three to five percent of people who experience severe symptoms, there are several risk factors for delirium tremens. DTs result in severe symptoms that can be life-threatening and require medical supervision. Common risk factors for DTs include:
- History of past DTs
- History of seizure during alcohol withdraw
- Low platelet counts, potassium levels, or sodium levels
- Older patients going through withdrawal
- Brain lesions
- Abnormal liver function
- Drug use
Treatment for alcohol use disorder
While some may try to detox from alcohol at home, the most recommended treatment is under medical supervision. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are unpredictable and differ for each individual. Severe symptoms, including DTs, can be potentially fatal. Alcohol withdrawal is considered dangerous, so it is best for individuals to seek treatment at a medical facility or under the care of a doctor.
Some people require medication during alcohol withdrawal for moderate to severe symptoms. Doctors are able to prescribe medications that reduce the likelihood of seizures, depress the central nervous system, and reduce the severity of symptoms in general. A doctor can also prescribe medication to help a person avoid drinking again, including medicine that reduces alcohol cravings and extends the periods of abstinence.
Treatment facilities can also provide support and care needed to maintain alcohol treatment after the detox process. From support groups to medication, there are many treatment options to help a person avoid relapse. Treatment for alcoholism and alcohol withdrawal are unique to the individual, and care is best left to trained medical professionals.