Withdrawal and detox from alcohol can begin within hours of discontinuing a drinking session. During detox, not everyone will experience withdrawal symptoms in the same way — some people will experience less severe symptoms than others. You are more likely to go through severe withdrawal if you drink heavily, have been drinking for a long period of time, have previously had withdrawals, or if you have other health conditions.
According to the National Library of Medicine, “Alcohol withdrawal usually occurs within 8 hours after the last drink but can occur days later. Symptoms usually peak by 24 to 72 hours, but may go on for weeks.”
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How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Take?
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may vary from person to person, but the general timeline can be distilled into three stages:
- Stage 1: In the first 6 to 12 hours, people will experience headaches, anxiety, stomach pains, insomnia, poor appetite, and nausea.
- Stage 2: In the next 12 to 48 hours, withdrawal escalates to include new symptoms like hallucinations and seizures.
- Stage 3: In that remaining 48 to 72 hours, withdrawal symptoms include fever, sweating, confusion, quick heart rate, high blood pressure, delirium tremens (DTs) with auditory hallucinations and even death.
The acute withdrawal stage will be the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be a potentially life-threatening event if not handled or treated properly.
What Is Delirium Tremens?
Delirium tremens (DTs) or “alcohol withdrawal delirium,” is one of the more extreme signs and symptoms that can occur after alcohol cessation. DTs are marked by a change in the level of consciousness and delirium and can be fatal in 1% to 5% of cases. Older patients with poor liver function, a history of heavy alcohol use, and more severe signs and symptoms of withdrawal at the outset are more likely to experience DTs.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
A person who has been drinking a significant amount and or is drinking on a regular basis develops a chemical addiction to the substances. When they all of a sudden stop giving the body the substances it has grown to be dependent on, it can send the body, brain neurotransmitters, and blood levels into shock.
The brain’s neurotransmitters are heavily suppressed during alcohol consumption. Once alcohol consumption is reduced or stopped, glutamate rapidly surges and hits sensitive neurotransmitters, causing an adverse effect on the brain and body.
What Happens During Alcohol Withdrawal & Detox?
Alcohol stays in your system for a certain amount of time based on your body weight, metabolism, and how many drinks you’ve had. Once you stop drinking, expect to experience certain symptoms, particularly if you are a chronic drinker.
- Common Withdrawal & Detox Symptoms:
- Extreme Fatigue
- Mood swings
- Rapid heart rate
- Dangerous dehydration
- Alcoholic tremors
- Delirium Tremens (DTs)
- Factors That May Influence the Detox Timeline:
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to address exactly how long detox will last. Several factors can play a role in the number of days detoxification will continue, including:
- Amount of alcohol consumed
- How long the person has been drinking
- How often the person has been drinking on a regular basis
- Nutritional considerations
- Weight and age
- Whether the alcohol combined with other substances
- Whether the person has any other co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression, eating disorders, etc.
- Additional physical health problems
What Is the Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal?
Treatment for alcohol withdrawal symptoms and the beginning of the detoxification process is best handled by professionals and often takes place in an inpatient setting like a detox or rehab center.
The goal of treatment is to ease the symptoms of withdrawal and support the patient during this critical time. Typical treatment for alcohol withdrawal may include:
- Initial observations of the patient to determine the severity of withdrawal symptoms
- Anti-anxiety drugs, like benzodiazepines to reduce anxiety triggered by withdrawal symptoms
- Anti-seizures drugs, like Depakote to avoid seizures
- Beta-blockers, which can slow the heart rate, reduce tremors and sometimes also help with the craving for alcohol
Alcohol withdrawal is mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. This is why skilled rehabilitation centers, where competent and compassionate professionals can supervise the detoxification process and manage withdrawal symptoms, is so vital for patient health and safety. These are the first, difficult steps towards sobriety.
What is the Long-Term Outlook for Alcohol Withdrawal?
The NLM reports that the long-term outlook (prognosis) depends on the extent of organ damage and whether or not the person continues to drink after rehab. In the months after treatment, patients may still experience sleep disturbances, mood swings, and low energy levels.
A complete recovery is possible. However, if patients return to drinking, they are at risk for sustaining serious bodily injury including liver, heart and nervous system disease or damage.
The Importance of Professional Help
If you or a loved one are attempting to self-detox or experiencing withdrawal symptoms, it’s important to reach out and get medical attention. If Delirium Tremens is present, death can become a very likely outcome. A kindling effect can also occur if withdrawal is not addressed immediately, which can lead to rapidly worsening withdrawal symptoms later.
The safest way to address alcohol abuse, as well as detox, is to consult with a medical professional or seek professional treatment. Alcohol detox is the first step of a comprehensive rehab program. If you are facing withdrawal symptoms, you should address the root of the problem by getting professional help or undergoing inpatient treatment.
Sobriety from alcohol can be a hard path to begin, but by having the resources and education in place, you can find your way to lasting recovery.