Alcohol withdrawal, or alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), refers to physical and psychological symptoms that can occur when someone who is dependent on alcohol has stopped drinking.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can range from mild to severe, and typically begin within 24 hours after a person’s last drink.
According to research from the American Academy of Family Physicians, there are three general stages to describe different severities of alcohol withdrawal:
- Stage 1: Mild Withdrawal
- Stage 2: Moderate Withdrawal
- Stage 3: Severe Withdrawal (Delirium Tremens)
The types of symptoms a person experiences during withdrawal can vary based on a variety of personal and biological factors. While many symptoms common during withdrawal, such as headaches and insomnia, can be highly uncomfortable, for some the detox process can also be dangerous.
About 3 to 5 percent of alcoholics develop a severe type of withdrawal known as delirium tremens (DT), which can be life-threatening. The risk for developing DT is highest among people who have been abusing alcohol for years, have severe dependence, or have a history of previously attempting alcohol detox.
How Long Does It Take To Detox From Alcohol?
Alcohol detoxification (detox) within an inpatient setting typically lasts between five to seven days. The exact timeline can vary from person to person, depending on the severity of a person’s symptoms and their drinking history.
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Some people with mild alcohol dependence may choose to develop a tapering schedule with their doctor as an alternative to undergoing detox. This method may not be suitable for people addicted to alcohol, however, and should be discussed with a doctor or treatment team.
Most people struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction enter a hospital or inpatient rehab program to safely detox from alcohol. This can provide adequate medical support and supervision for treating moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms.
Factors that can affect how long it takes to detox from alcohol include:
- detox setting
- level of dependence (mild to severe)
- length of time a person has abused alcohol
- co-occurring mental health or substance use disorders
- overall health
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline And Symptoms
There are three general stages of alcohol withdrawal: mild, moderate, and severe (delirium tremens).
The specific timeline for alcohol withdrawal can vary from person to person. Descriptions of each stage below provide a general guideline for what someone can expect during withdrawal.
Mild Withdrawal: 6-24 hours
Mild withdrawal symptoms most often begin within six to eight hours after an alcoholic’s last drink. Early symptoms may be uncomfortable and flu-like in nature. Hydration and monitoring for seizures is important during this time.
Mild symptoms of early withdrawal may include:
- upset stomach
- heart palpitations
Moderate Withdrawal: 24-72 hours
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal generally reach their peak between 24 and 72 hours after a person’s last drink. This can include symptoms of mild withdrawal, as well as other more intense symptoms.
Other moderate withdrawal symptoms that can surface during this stage of detox include:
- high blood pressure
- fast breathing
- rapid heart rate
- seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there
Severe symptoms, such as seizures, fever, and hallucinations can be signs of severe alcohol withdrawal. This is most common in people with a long history of heavy alcohol abuse and those who haven’t received adequate treatment for mild and moderate withdrawal symptoms.
Severe Withdrawal (Delirium Tremens): Up to a Week
People who have been abusing alcohol for years or decades are at an increased risk for experiencing a more severe form of alcohol withdrawal known as delirium tremens (DT).
Symptoms of DT can be life-threatening and are best treated within an intensive inpatient setting for medical supervision and medication-assisted treatment.
Symptoms of delirium tremens, or severe withdrawal may include:
- severe confusion
- severe agitation
- delusional thinking
Seizures during alcohol withdrawal are most likely to occur within 24 to 72 hours after a person’s last drink. With medications and medical supervision, symptoms of DT can be efficiently treated, monitored, and may resolve within 1 to 8 days.
Risk factors for developing DT include:
- people over the age of 30
- heavy alcohol abuse
- prior experience of severe alcohol withdrawal
- polysubstance abuse
- other health problems
Beyond The First Week
Most withdrawal symptoms resolve within five days to a week after a person has stopped drinking. However, many people can also experience symptoms that last beyond the first week. This is referred to as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), or protracted alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
Symptoms that are most common after the first week include cravings for alcohol, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. These can be difficult for people to manage alone. Within an alcohol rehab program, patients experiencing these symptoms can receive certain medications to help ease symptoms. Treatment services such as individual therapy within alcohol rehab can also be helpful, and improve long-term prospects for successful recovery.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal occurs in people who have become physically dependent on alcohol. This means that a person’s body has adapted to the presence of alcohol in their system. Quitting alcohol can then prompt a negative reaction in the body.
With alcohol abuse, many alcoholics eventually feel the need to drink alcohol throughout the day just to feel “normal” or to be able to function in their usual routine. Without alcohol, a person can begin to experience early signs of withdrawal.
Not every person who abuses alcohol experiences symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, however. About 50 percent of people with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) experience withdrawal symptoms after they have reduced or stopped drinking.
Alcohol dependence and withdrawal is most likely in people who drink heavily on a daily basis, or have a long history of heavy alcohol abuse.
Alcohol Detox At The Bluffs
Alcohol withdrawal can be an uncomfortable and difficult process that should not be attempted alone. Entering an inpatient rehab program for supervised detox can reduce the length of the withdrawal process, lessen the risk for relapse, and provide proper treatment to keep a person safe during detox.
Alcohol detox at The Bluffs offers a quiet and supportive environment for people to receive treatment capable of meeting their needs throughout acute withdrawal. This includes special considerations for patients with unique needs during alcohol detox, such as pregnant patients, elderly patients, and those with severe alcohol dependence.
Beyond the initial detox period, patients within our alcohol rehab program receive comprehensive care to help manage cravings and other lingering symptoms. Through our treatment program, patients can safely detox and learn healthy life skills to overcome their harmful relationship with alcohol and begin their path towards recovery.
Contact The Bluffs today to learn more about our alcohol detox services and rehab programs.
- American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) — Outpatient Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
- The New England Journal of Medicine — Recognition and Management of Withdrawal Delirium (Delirium Tremens)