It usually takes 2 to 7 days to detox from alcohol, but the exact length of time will depend on the level of dependence.
Withdrawal symptoms range from mild to severe, depending on dependence level as well. The longer and more you have been drinking, and the more significantly your brain and body are dependent on alcohol, the more significant the withdrawal symptoms will be and the longer the detox timeline.
More than 5 percent of Americans over the age of 12 were classified with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2019. One of the symptoms of an AUD is alcohol dependence, which is caused by regular drinking that makes changes in the brain. Alcohol withdrawal can become life-threatening in its most severe form: delirium tremens (DTs).
If you drink a lot regularly and have been drinking for a long time, a professional alcohol detox program that uses medical management can help to keep you safe during withdrawal. A detox program can also help to minimize the potential symptoms of withdrawal, so you are more likely to fully detox and continue into recovery.
Alcohol withdrawal can start within a few hours after stopping drinking. Side effects can range in severity based on the level of dependence on alcohol.
The basic detox timeline is as follows:
- 3–6 hours after stopping drinking: Minor withdrawal symptoms start.
- 12–24 hours after stopping drinking: Hallucinations can occur.
- 24–48 hours after stopping drinking: With mild alcohol dependence, withdrawal symptoms will peak and start to taper off.
- 48–72 hours after stopping drinking: With severe alcohol dependence and withdrawal, delirium tremens can begin.
- 72 hours after stopping drinking: For moderate to severe alcohol dependence, withdrawal symptoms will peak.
- A few weeks to months after stopping drinking: With moderate to severe alcohol dependence, withdrawal symptoms can linger.
Typical withdrawal symptoms for alcohol withdrawal can include both physical and psychological symptoms that can range in severity from mild to significant.
Physical withdrawal symptoms:
- Clammy skin
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid heart rate
- Dilated pupils
- Nausea and vomiting
- Elevated blood pressure
Psychological withdrawal symptoms:
- Feeling on edge or jumpy
- Inability to concentrate or focus
- Mood swings
Most of these withdrawal symptoms can begin within a few hours of stopping drinking. They generally peak within 24 to 72 hours and then taper off.
In the case of moderate to severe alcohol dependence, the following alcohol withdrawal symptoms can continue for a few weeks or even months:
- Trouble sleeping
- Mood swings
- Heart rate irregularities
- Trouble thinking clearly
- General malaise
About 50 percent of people with a history of alcohol abuse will experience some kind of alcohol withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. About 3–5 percent of the time, this can include severe alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens (DTs). DTs is fatal nearly 40 percent of the time without appropriate treatment.
Delirium tremens usually starts within 48 to 72 hours after stopping drinking, and it can continue for up to five days. Symptoms can include the following:
- Severe confusion
Delirium tremens is a potentially life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention.
Risks of Alcohol Withdrawal
In its most severe form, alcohol withdrawal can lead to death. It can also have serious side effects that can be very physically uncomfortable and mentally difficult.
Alcohol withdrawal can make it very hard to function. It’s important to have medical and emotional support during this process.
As alcohol processes out of the system and causes a “crash” or low, it can lead to cravings. Essentially, you’ll want to drink more to make the negative side effects go away. This can quickly lead to relapse.
Causes of Withdrawal
Alcohol is mind-altering. It is the most used addictive substance in the United States.
When you drink alcohol, it makes changes to the chemical makeup of your brain. When you drink, it releases neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in your brain that make you feel happy and less inhibited.
The more you drink, the more your brain gets used to alcohol, basically shortcutting your pleasure sensors. When you stop drinking, you feel low, as it can take time for your brain to catch up and start making these chemicals again on its own.
Alcohol is also a depressant, so this means that it slows down or lowers bodily functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. When alcohol leaves the body, the central nervous system can go into overdrive, causing all of these functions to become heightened.
The more you drink, and the more regularly you drink, the more likely you are to struggle with alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking. Underlying medical and mental health issues can also complicate and worsen alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
When detoxing from alcohol, there are professional treatment options to help.
Detox is a program that allows you the space and support to let alcohol process safely out of your brain and body. The level of care you will need is determined by your level of dependence on alcohol. The higher the level of dependence, the higher the level of care you will need.
A medical detoxification program uses medications, such as benzodiazepines, to manage withdrawal symptoms and keep you medically stable. Alcohol is often substituted with another depressant or sedative, and then slowly tapered off. This can prevent more intense withdrawal symptoms and allow the brain and body to readjust slowly and safely.
In the case of delirium tremens, IV fluids and medications are needed to help prevent seizures. Medications can also be administered to target specific withdrawal symptoms as needed. Medical monitoring of blood pressure, heart rate, and blood chemical levels is needed as well.
Detox is best managed in a quiet, calm, and low-light environment that is monitored around the clock by medical and mental health professionals. Supportive care, nutritional support, and encouragement are all beneficial during alcohol detox.
The Need for Professional Help
Alcohol withdrawal can be a serious condition with significant consequences and side effects. For this reason, it is best managed through a professional detox treatment program.
If any of the following are true, professional detox is the optimal choice:
- You have been drinking heavily and regularly for a long time.
- You have tried to quit drinking before and were unable to do so.
- You also use other illicit substances/drugs.
- You also have a co-occurring mental health or underlying medical condition.
- Your living situation and environment are not supportive of detox.
Alcohol detox programs are ideally followed with an addiction treatment program that can support long-term recovery.
Alcohol Withdrawal. (October 2021). U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
Delirium Tremens. (January 2021). StatPearls.
Facts About Alcohol. (July 2015). National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD).
Clinical Management of Alcohol Withdrawal: A Systematic Review. (July–December 2013). Industrial Psychiatry Journal.