Alcohol Withdrawal Duration Overview
Individuals who need alcohol addiction treatment might worry about the alcohol withdrawal process. However, you or your loved one can safely make it through alcohol withdrawal syndrome with accurate information and medical guidance.
Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal
Medical professionals break down alcohol withdrawal into three distinct stages.
Notably, the potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms are most likely to occur after the first 24-48 hours.
While most people will experience relatively mild withdrawal symptoms, seeking medical advice before quitting your alcohol use is STRONGLY recommended to ensure your safety.
Initial Withdrawal Stage (6-12 hours)
The first stage of withdrawal begins a few hours after your last drink. During the first stage, you can usually expect to have mild symptoms.
Some of the common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal during the first stage include:
- Nausea, vomiting
- Cravings for alcohol
- Shaky hands (tremors)
- Increased body temperature
Secondary Withdrawal Stage (24-48 hours)
After the first day or two, the side effects of alcohol withdrawal usually increase in intensity.
During the second stage, you are also more at risk for experiencing potentially severe withdrawal symptoms, including Delirium Tremens (DTs).
Some of the possible side effects you might experience in the first 24-48 hours include:
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heart rate/heart palpitations
- Auditory and/or visual hallucinations*
- Mood swings*
- Aggression or agitation*
*Symptoms of Delirium Tremens
Final Withdrawal Stage (48-72 hours)
After 2-3 days of the alcohol withdrawal process, some of your symptoms will lessen, and your chances of experiencing a medical emergency will decrease around this stage.
The final stage will usually last a couple more days, but you’ll begin to start thinking clearly and can prepare for the next phase in your alcohol treatment process.
Management of Alcohol Withdrawal
The safest way to approach detoxification after alcohol abuse is with the help of trained medical professionals.
Instead of quitting “cold turkey,” medical detox offers you medical attention and support to prevent you from experiencing any more severe side effects of withdrawal.
Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment Medication
Doctors often use medications to mitigate withdrawal symptoms and ensure you’re comfortable during medical detox.
Several different medications can potentially be used, each serving a distinct purpose.
One type of medication commonly used to treat alcohol use disorder is benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines act as a sedative and help alleviate the over-stimulation in the brain shortly after quitting alcohol misuse.
Anticonvulsants may also be used because there is a chance you can experience an alcohol withdrawal seizure during the peak of your symptoms.
Before you begin treatment, staff will take time to communicate the types of medications that will work best for you and your continued treatment program.
Other medications used for treating alcohol use disorder include:
Medical Detoxification for Alcohol
Medical detox for treatment of alcohol misuse is provided through both inpatient rehab and outpatient treatment centers. The treatment option you select will usually depend on previous alcohol abuse, the amount of alcohol consumed during your addiction, and any co-occurring health concerns.
Outpatient treatment for the alcohol detox process is relatively straightforward and tends to be the most common recommendation.
What Makes Alcohol Withdrawal so Dangerous?
Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Alcohol targets the GABA neurotransmitters of the brain, causing sedation. When alcohol consumption occurs regularly over a long period of time, the brain gets accustomed to being in a state of constant sedation.
After a while, the brain increases certain chemical production to counteract the persistent sedative effects of alcohol. When alcohol is suddenly removed from the system, the brain amps up and quickly become overstimulated.
This overstimulation causes symptoms such as tremors, insomnia, anxiety, and potentially even seizures.
Factors That Impact the Severity of Withdrawal Symptoms
The alcohol withdrawal process can become life-threatening and if done without the help of trained staff, deadly in some cases. There is no way to determine how challenging your alcohol withdrawal process will become, but there are factors that can put you at risk of a more challenging withdrawal process.
Factors that can impact a person’s withdrawal experience include:
- Previous drinking habits (e.g., binge drinking, heavy drinking)
- Prior diagnosis of substance use disorder/alcohol use disorder
- Co-occurring disorders
Previous Drinking Habits
Your past drinking habits will play a factor in the severity of your alcohol withdrawal symptoms. If you also drank for a long time, you are potentially more likely to experience more intensive side effects.
Past History of Substance Abuse
If you’ve dealt with alcohol use disorder (also known as alcoholism) for a long time, you may have experienced withdrawal symptoms in the past. If so, discuss any past withdrawal and detox experiences with your doctor and/or healthcare providers—especially if you experienced severe symptoms such as withdrawal seizures.
If you have co-occurring mental health disorders, medical professionals will address them during the treatment process. Often alcoholism can intensify mental health symptoms, such as anxiety or depression.
Doctors will address your addiction and mental health conditions separately to ensure you develop the necessary tools to manage your sobriety and mental health issues moving forward.
Get Help With Tackling Alcohol Withdrawal Safely
The alcohol withdrawal timeline is different for everyone. When you decide to focus on your sobriety, you should seek professional help at every stage of the journey.
You can call the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to find out what alcohol treatment centers are near you.