According to the official National Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women should have no more than one alcoholic drink per day and men should have no more than two. Drinking more than this, especially on a regular basis, can be harmful to your health and lead to the development of physical dependence and addiction.
If you are addicted to alcohol and you suddenly stop drinking, you may experience a set of painful, debilitating symptoms known as alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary from mild to severe depending on the severity of your alcohol problem, with the most severe cases being life-threatening. Just like how the intensity of your symptoms may vary, the alcohol withdrawal timeline can vary as well, with some people feeling better after just a couple of days and others feeling sick for up to two weeks.
Detoxing from alcohol alone can be dangerous and potentially fatal, so it’s always best to detox under close medical supervision. After detoxing successfully, you can transition to a treatment program where you learn to heal your relationship with alcohol, move past your alcohol addiction, and avoid having to detox again in the future.
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, meaning it slows down functions such as breathing, heart rate, and respiration. When you drink, your body must work harder to overcome these depressant side effects, and when you drink regularly, your body gets used to functioning in an overactive state. Then, if you stop drinking, your body will anticipate having alcohol in the system and continue functioning in this over-excited state.
Hyper-aroused receptors in your brain and body are what cause uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal. Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Heart palpitations
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
Delirium tremens (DTs), the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal, are characterized by visual and auditory hallucinations, intense tremors, vomiting, high blood pressure, and seizures. DTs are often fatal without rapid medical intervention.
You are more likely to experience severe withdrawal if you drink heavily, drink for long periods of time, have previously experienced withdrawal, and have other health conditions.
How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may begin as soon as alcohol has left your system. However, how long it takes your body to clear itself of alcohol depends on multiple factors, such as:
- Your age, weight, and gender
- Genetic makeup
- Liver function
- Duration of alcohol abuse
- The severity of alcohol abuse
- Using alcohol with other drugs
The longer you’ve been addicted to alcohol and the higher volumes of alcohol you consume, the longer your withdrawal symptoms will last.
The alcohol withdrawal timeline generally begins 8-12 hours after a person’s last drink, peaks within 24-72 hours, and can continue for 5-7 days or more.
Breaking Down the Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
How long alcohol withdrawal lasts varies, but most people follow a general timeline.
8-12 Hours After Your Last Drink
Most people begin having symptoms of withdrawal around eight hours after their last drink. Symptoms usually begin as mild and gradually get worse. Common symptoms during this phase of withdrawal include restlessness, irritability, nervousness, lack of appetite, nausea, and trembling.
12-24 Hours After Your Last Drink
Your symptoms will continue getting worse and you may also experience mood swings, night sweats, depression, nightmares, headache, insomnia, vomiting, and more. People who experience hallucinations during withdrawal usually begin to do so between 12 to 24 hours after their last drink.
24-72 Hours After Your Last Drink
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually peak between 24-72 hours after your last drink. During this timeframe, you can expect the most serious symptoms, including:
- Delirium tremens (DTs)
For your safety, it is important that you have medical support during this time. If you don’t have medical support, be sure to have someone with you who can call for emergency services if an emergency arises.
3-5 Days After Your Last Drink
After the end of day 3, your symptoms should begin to decline in severity. Some symptoms may disappear completely, however, it’s likely you will still experience some discomfort during this time. Cravings for alcohol may also be particularly strong.
Over the next one to two weeks, the rest of your symptoms should subside. You may experience lingering anxiety, cravings, dysphoria, and sleep disturbances for several weeks or months. Even if your acute symptoms have resolved, it’s important that you receive continued treatment. After all, the risk of relapse is extremely high during the first few weeks and months of sobriety.
Medical Detox Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances to detox from, and you should never attempt to do so without professional support. Alcohol detox centers can prescribe medications and monitor your symptoms to ensure your comfort and safety.
The most common way alcohol withdrawal is treated is by using a long-acting benzodiazepine taper. Benzodiazepines are CNS depressants that affect the same neurotransmitters in the brain as alcohol does. Long-acting benzos, such as Valium, can reduce the severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, prevent seizures, and keep you comfortable in the process. Your doctor may gradually reduce your dose each day until you are completely weaned off the medication.
In addition to a benzodiazepine taper, medical professionals can monitor your vitals to prevent medical emergencies. They can also offer support and facilitate therapies that make you feel better.
Coping With Alcohol Withdrawal
Even though the alcohol withdrawal timeline only lasts 1-2 weeks, it can feel like a long time. As a result, it’s important to know how you can self-soothe and cope with your symptoms. Practices that may help alleviate your symptoms include:
- Eating a balanced, nutritious diet
- Getting plenty of rest and quality sleep
- Discussing your struggles with a support group
- Practicing relaxation techniques like meditation or deep breathing
- Gentle exercises such as stretching or yoga
- Behavioral therapy sessions
- Staying busy by journaling, watching tv, playing games, and more
After Alcohol Detox: What Comes Next?
Detox is only the first step toward recovery. Those who don’t seek continued alcoholism treatment are extremely vulnerable to relapse, and the next bout of withdrawal symptoms is likely to be more severe. The best way to prevent relapse and continue on the road to recovery is to participate in an inpatient or intensive outpatient addiction treatment program.
Alcohol rehab centers offer a variety of services that can help you stay sober, including:
- Behavioral therapy
- Holistic therapy
- Group therapy
- Family therapy
- Individual therapy
- Case management
- Relapse prevention
- Aftercare planning
To learn more about your alcohol rehab options in North Carolina, please contact one of our dedicated admissions counselors at Next Step Recovery today.
Find Freedom from Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Today
Making the decision to stop drinking is a huge first step, and you don’t have to face alcohol withdrawal alone. Contact us today at Next Step Recovery to learn about your treatment options and get started on your recovery.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Retrieved Feb 2023 from https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/dietary-guidelines
- National Library of Medicine: Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond, Retrieved Feb 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4606320/
- Wiley Online Library: Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: mechanisms, manifestations, and management, Retrieved Feb 2023 from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ane.12671