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Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms, Timeline & Detox Treatment

Last Updated: December 18, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Misusing alcohol and binge drinking are common problems that can seriously affect your life. If you drink alcohol too much and too often, your body can become dependent on it. Breaking this dependence can be very hard.

When someone with alcohol dependence decides to stop or cut down, they might have withdrawal symptoms. Knowing these symptoms, how long they last and the treatment options available is important. These tools can help you start the path to recovery from alcohol addiction. Remember — alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous, so getting the right treatment is crucial.

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal describes the symptoms that can occur when someone who excessively drinks stops or reduces their alcohol consumption. 

When you drink often, your brain gradually adjusts to become more hyperactive. This eventually offsets the suppressing effect of alcohol and restores balance to your brain. 

When you stop drinking, the suppressing effect of alcohol is removed. However, your brain remains hyperactive until it can readjust. This ultimately causes withdrawal symptoms, which affect the entire body. The severity of symptoms depends on how long and how much the person has been drinking. Therefore, those with alcohol use disorder will be affected more than others when quitting alcohol.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can differ from one individual to another. These symptoms are influenced by factors like how long alcohol has been used, the quantity consumed, and a person’s specific health conditions. These symptoms can vary in intensity, from mild to potentially life-threatening. If the symptoms are severe, it’s crucial to seek urgent medical help.

Common Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

While alcohol withdrawal can lead to very serious problems, there are common symptoms that most people stopping alcohol will experience. These common symptoms are not typically a cause for concern if they are mild. These symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Jumpiness
  • Nightmares

Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

While mild symptoms can be uncomfortable, in some cases, individuals may experience severe and potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. This is more common in those who have used alcohol more heavily or who have gone through withdrawal before. Severe symptoms can include:

  • Seizures
  • Extreme confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • High blood pressure

The most serious complication of alcohol withdrawal is an uncommon but deadly condition called delirium tremens (DTs). This condition leads to hallucinations, seizures, severe agitation, confusion and changes in vital signs. Without treatment, this condition is fatal in up to 37% of cases. Even with medical treatment, there is a chance this condition could be fatal.

The Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

The timeline for alcohol withdrawal is different for each individual but follows the same pattern from onset to improvement. This timeline is generally divided into four key stages:

  • Onset: Typically, symptoms begin 6-12 hours after the last drink. Mild symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, nausea and abdominal pain characterize this initial phase.
  • Intensification:  Symptoms start to intensify between 12-48 hours after cessation. During this stage, individuals may experience increased tremors, heightened anxiety and more pronounced nausea. Some may also start to experience seizures.
  • Peak: The most severe symptoms generally peak around 48-72 hours after the last drink. This is when individuals are at the highest risk for severe complications like seizures and delirium tremens (DTs). During this period, close medical supervision is crucial.
  • Improvement: After the peak, symptoms usually begin to lessen gradually. This improvement phase can vary in duration. However, many people start to feel much better within 5-7 days.

It’s important to note that the severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms can vary widely. Medical supervision during this process is highly recommended. This can ensure safety and provide the necessary support for a successful detoxification. 

Physical symptoms will typically resolve after one to two weeks. However, psychological symptoms and cravings can last for several weeks or months. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment Options

The journey to recovery from alcohol addiction often begins with understanding the available treatment options. These options include medically supervised detoxification (detox), rehabilitation programs, therapy and aftercare support. 

Alcohol Detox

Detox is the crucial first step in alcohol addiction recovery. It involves a medically-supervised withdrawal process. This ensures safety and reduces the risk of severe withdrawal symptoms. The main goal of detox is to safely manage physical withdrawal symptoms. Then, the individual can prepare for further treatment.

Alcohol Rehab

Rehabilitation programs address both the physical and psychological parts of addiction. These programs can be residential, where individuals stay at the facility. Or they can be outpatient, where individuals attend treatment sessions while living at home. 

Rehab programs usually involve different types of therapy and activities. They want to teach individuals about their addiction and learn better ways to handle life. It also helps people build a strong base for lasting recovery. Rehab’s main purpose is to support someone who has finished detox in staying sober.

Therapy

Therapy is an integral part of recovery. It provides a place for people to understand why they became addicted. Therapy isn’t a separate step; it’s used in rehab, aftercare, and even at the end of detox.

Therapists use different methods, like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), to help people change harmful thoughts and actions. Therapy gives insights into what causes cravings and how to prevent relapse. The supportive therapy environment helps with personal growth and emotional healing.

Aftercare

Aftercare programs help maintain sobriety after the initial treatment phase is over. These programs may include ongoing therapy, support groups and other resources. These programs aim to prevent relapse and provide continual recovery support.

Alcohol Addiction Support and Resources

Overcoming alcohol addiction can be a difficult journey. It requires effort, support and access to the right resources. Fortunately, many local and national resources can provide further guidance, support groups and access to addiction recovery professionals.

Alcohol addiction support and resources in Atlanta include:

Sources

MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed December 15, 2023.

Berman, Jacob. “Alcohol withdrawal.” February 28, 2023. Accessed December 15, 2023.

Newman, Richard K.; Gallagher, Megan A. Stobart; & Gomez, Anna E. “Alcohol Withdrawal.” StatPearls [Internet]. July 21, 2023. Accessed December 15, 2023.

Rahman, Abdul & Paul, Manju. “Delirium Tremens.” StatPearls [Internet]. August 14, 2023. Accessed December 15, 2023.

Huebner, Robert B. & Kantor, Lori Wolfgang. “Advances in Alcoholism Treatment.” Alcohol Research & Health. 2011. Accessed December 15, 2023.

Alcoholics Anonymous. “Alcoholics Anonymous.” 2023. Accessed December 15, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.” 2023. Accessed December 15, 2023.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “SAMHSA’s National Helpline.” 2023. Accessed December 15, 2023.

Bayard, Max; McIntyre, Jonah; Hill, Keith; Woodside, Jack. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” American Family Physician, 2004. Accessed December 16, 2023.