What Is the Timeline for Alcohol Detox?

alcohol detox timeline

Quitting alcohol abuse can improve your health and well-being. Knowing what to expect and doing it with the help of medical professionals is important though. Physical dependence on alcohol is a serious condition. Alcohol detox can be uncomfortable and dangerous if you try to quit without help. Knowing how long withdrawal symptoms last can help you resist the urge to drink because you’ll know what to expect.

If you’re a heavy drinker trying to quit alcohol, here’s some important information on the alcohol withdrawal timeline:

Alcohol Detox Timeline

Heavy drinkers often experience physical and mental alcohol withdrawal symptoms when they quit drinking. Research shows about half of people with alcohol dependence have severe withdrawal symptoms. When you regularly abuse alcohol, your central nervous system thinks alcohol is the “new normal.” It starts needing alcohol to keep brain chemicals balanced and withdrawal symptoms at bay. Without alcohol, your body goes into overdrive trying to achieve balance again. This causes alcohol withdrawal.

The alcohol detox timeline varies by individual and severity of substance abuse. The process may last weeks for some, but for others it can last months. The length of withdrawal a person experiences is influenced by several factors, including length of use and amount of alcohol consumed.

The most uncomfortable and dangerous symptoms usually peak within 24 to 48 hours. Most severe symptoms ease up within a week. Sometimes, less severe symptoms can linger for months. If your substance abuse includes drug abuse, this can change the withdrawal timeline.

Uncomfortable Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

6 hours after last drink, getting progressively worse

If you’ve been abusing alcohol for a long time, withdrawal may start as soon as six hours after your last drink. These alcohol withdrawal symptoms often feel like an intense hangover and may include:

  • Delirium tremens
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety

Dangerous / Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

24-48 hours after last drink

It’s difficult to know when the most dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptoms will kick in for you. This is why it’s important to complete alcohol detox from start to finish under the care of medical staff. For many people, the most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms begin around a day after drinking. They may last a couple of days. These withdrawal symptoms include ones from the first phase of alcohol detox. They also may include:

  • Delirium tremens / seizures
  • Unsteady or high heart rate
  • Hallucinations involving hearing, sight, and touch
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Nightmares

The timeline for alcohol withdrawal for this phase may last a couple of days after stopping drinking.

Less Severe Physical / Psychological Symptoms

Up to seven days

Most people are past the most intense alcohol withdrawal symptoms within a few days. At that point, discomfort becomes more manageable. But it could remain bothersome for about a week. Some symptoms during this period may include:

  • Stomach issues
  • Sleep problems
  • Low mood
  • Feeling “foggy”
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite

The withdrawal timeline for this phase lasts about a week.

Lingering Mood and Anxiety Issues

Up to one year after quitting alcohol

It takes time to repair the psychological damage from alcohol abuse and alcoholism. The physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal usually subside within days or weeks. Your nervous system takes longer to rebalance. This is known as protracted withdrawal. It’s also called post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). PAWS affects your emotional state. Many alcoholics really start to notice PAWS about four to eight weeks after alcohol abstinence. These symptoms gradually start improving. They may take around a year to stop for some people. Common symptoms of this condition include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Sleep problems
  • Irritability
  • Memory issues
  • Low tolerance to physical and emotional pain

PAWS may come and go. It may be more severe at some times than others. For many people, this is when the risk of relapse is highest. Studies show that substance abusers are more vulnerable to stress and triggers during this time. The body and mind are still in “repair” mode. You may find yourself craving the temporary relief alcohol provided.

While reaching for a drink may ease discomfort for a few hours, alcohol ultimately makes psychiatric symptoms worse. This is because of the way it affects the brain’s chemistry. Research suggests medications work well with behavioral therapy to help manage mental symptoms. You may feel less likely to self-medicate your mood with alcohol abuse.

Alcohol detox is not enough to keep you sober. It’s important to have coping skills and support to maintain sobriety during the first year. Following up alcohol detox with inpatient rehab helps you address the reasons why you abuse substances. It teaches you healthy ways of coping with triggers.

When Will I Feel Better After I Stop Drinking?

It may have taken a while to develop an alcohol addiction. It will likely take a while to repair all the damage. The timeline for alcohol detox and alcohol withdrawal symptoms depends on:

  • The severity of your alcohol dependence
  • How long you’ve been abusing alcohol
  • Your physical and mental make-up
  • If you have co-occurring disorders like depression or anxiety

Most people can count on getting through the most uncomfortable physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms within a week. You may continue to have mild symptoms for several months. The effects of withdrawing from alcohol are different for everyone. Many alcoholics struggle with nutrition issues, poor physical health, digestive issues and low or anxious mood. You can take steps that may help speed up physical and mental healing. Ways to aid recovery include:

  • Exercising
  • Eating well-balanced meals
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Taking medications as directed
  • Joining a sober support network

Expecting that you may experience low mood, anxiety, sleep disturbances and other symptoms for up to a year means you can take steps to minimize these. It also means you can remind yourself that these challenges are temporary. With each passing day of sobriety, you’re closer to feeling your best.

Alcohol Treatment

Trying to quit drinking on your own is difficult if you have an alcohol dependency. Attempting alcohol detox on your own can be dangerous and even fatal. It’s best to get help from substance abuse and addiction specialists. Inpatient rehab may be necessary to provide the time and space you need to get better.

Alcohol rehab will:

  • Provide a medically supervised detox program. Medical professionals will ease withdrawal symptoms with medications for treating alcohol withdrawal. They’ll make sure you’re safe and comfortable.
  • Help you address emotional issues and stressors that lead you to drink alcohol.
  • Provide dual diagnosis treatment for mental health conditions. A large portion of alcoholics also have an underlying mental illness that contributes to drinking. You may be trying to cope with depression or anxiety through alcohol abuse.
  • Offer evidence-based treatment options for alcohol abuse. These often include individual, group and family therapy.
  • Give you regular access to addiction treatment specialists.
  • Help you begin recovering from the mental and physical effects of alcohol abuse.
  • Teach you healthy coping skills to help you stay sober for the long run.

If you’re looking for somewhere safe to detox from alcohol, a Promises Behavioral Health treatment center can help.

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PBH Staff

Written by

Editorial Staff

Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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