The duration of alcohol detox can vary significantly. While there does exist a typical pattern or timeline, the specifics of a person’s experience—type, duration, and severity of side effects—can often be determined by a range of causes, both within and outside of a person’s control.
Some of the factors affecting the timeline of alcohol detox can include:
- Frequency/amount of drinking - How many drinks per week does the person consume on average?
- How long a person has been drinking - For what period of time have they been a heavy drinker?
- Other substance use - Does the person tend to combine alcohol with other drugs or potentially addictive behaviors?
- Co-existing mental health/behavioral issues - Does the person suffer from mental or emotional disorders, either genetic or caused by alcohol use?
- Family history - Can patterns of alcoholism be observed among members of their immediate or extended family?
- Physical health - Does the person have physical conditions that may affect the body’s ability to recover from heightened alcohol use/withdrawal?
As such, the alcohol detox timeline should be considered as only a general outline based on typical observations and experiences of those in recovery from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). The reality is that rarely will two individual’s experiences be exactly alike.
A Note About Safety
Quitting alcohol “cold turkey”—going from daily use to abstinence in a short period of time—is generally not recommended without licensed medical supervision. Alcohol Withdrawal can be a potentially life-threatening situation due to the extreme stress placed on the body’s Central Nervous System (CNS).
While some cases of light-to-moderate or irregular use may not require professional help, there are many possible side effects that can arise during the alcohol detox process, and for many of these, it can be inadvisable to face them alone.
It is strongly suggested that a person considering the decision to undergo alcohol detox do so at an inpatient treatment program, which can provide 24-hour monitoring and care. The staff teams at these programs are highly trained at dealing with both the physical and mental/emotional complications that can arise while detoxing from alcohol.
Potential Physical Complications from Alcohol Detox
The physical side effects of Alcohol Withdrawal can vary in severity level depending on many of the factors listed above.
Alcohol functions in the body as a depressant, meaning that it slows down brain function. Frequent, long-term alcohol use can result in the body’s Central Nervous System (CNS) having to work at heightened levels in order to keep the brain fully operational. When alcohol is removed from the equation, the brain may remain in an overactive state, causing withdrawal symptoms.
Mild withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Shaky hands
More severe withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Delirium Tremens (DT)
In cases of alcoholism, there may be the possibility during detox of a serious condition known as Delirium Tremens (DT). The condition tends to occur in approximately 5% of detox clients and can result in a difficult and long-lasting road to wellness.
Delirium Tremens can be defined by the following symptoms:
- Mood swings
- Altered brain function
- Heavy shaking/tremors
- Trouble focusing
- Manic behavior
These symptoms can begin within 48 to 96 hours of a person’s last drink, though they may not begin for 7 to 10 days. It is strongly recommended that a person not attempt to undergo DTs outside of professional care due to the hazardous nature of the condition. Clients who have experienced previous difficulties in quitting alcohol or who have been diagnosed with alcoholism may be at heightened risk of suffering DTs and should seek out an appropriate medical setting when attempting to detox.
Potential Mental Health/Emotional Complications
In addition to physical symptoms, there can also exist during the process of alcohol detox the possibility of experiencing mental or emotional side effects. It can be necessary to become aware of these side effects, as they can easily create the psychological conditions that lead to relapse.
These symptoms may include:
- Intense cravings
- Agitation or Irritability
- Mood swings
The first weeks on the road to sobriety after an extended period of heightened alcohol use can be rocky ones. The decision to quit alcohol, although already made a previous time, might often need to be reaffirmed again and again, perhaps on a daily basis. Learning to manage the chaotic emotional period of early recovery can be a crucial first step to living a life free from alcohol.
Alcohol Detox Timeline
The detox process may often involve experiencing and managing the symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal. As such, the timeline for detox can often be innately tied to the Four Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal. A typical timeframe might tend to take place around the structure of these Four Stages:
- Stage 1. Early symptoms may begin roughly 6-8 hours after last drink. Symptoms can include those listed above – anxiety, insomnia, abdominal pain, etc.
- Stage 2. The next stage of withdrawal symptoms may begin around 12-24 hours after the last drink. These symptoms will likely increase in severity towards a peak during this period and can include high blood pressure, elevated body temperature, altered heart rate, or confusion.
- Stage 3. The third stage of withdrawal symptoms may include hallucinations, fever/sweating, agitation, and even seizures. It can generally take place around 24-48 hours after last drink and is possibly one of the more serious stages of withdrawal, as the side effects here can be fatal. Close monitoring and effective treatment is crucial to the health of the client.
- Stage 4. At this point, the chemical detox process may be basically complete, as the physical symptoms begin to disappear by 5-7 days after the last drink. In severe cases and if there is a lack of treatment, it's possible for side effects to continue during this period. It’s here that the emotional symptoms can begin to take root and put the client at heightened risk of relapse.
It is important to remember that this is a rough guideline. Everybody’s experience may be different and can depend heavily upon the condition in which the client is entering treatment, along with other factors. A critical task of the responsible treatment team is to assess the individualized needs of the client and to respond accordingly. With Alcohol Withdrawal being a potentially life-threatening situation, care should be entrusted to trained professionals.
The Treatment Process - Physical
The initial procedure in any detox process is intended to effectively monitor and gain stability over the physical symptoms. This procedure can include treating the various physical side effects listed above and checking conditions for signs of severe withdrawal. Blood pressure and resting heart rate, along with respiration and body temperature, should be carefully observed by the treatment team to make certain they stay within a safe range.
Supplements, implementing a healthy diet, and maintaining a regular sleep schedule go a long way in reducing withdrawal symptoms and allowing the body to heal.
Frequently, medications will be prescribed in order to ease the stress on the body by mimicking the depressant effects of alcohol. The most common types of medicines for this purpose are the depressants known as Benzodiazepines. Again, to help eliminate potentially dangerous side effects, it is usually recommended that the detox process is carried out in a professional, controlled inpatient treatment program.
The Treatment Process – Preventing Relapse
After the physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal have reached a point of stability, it may be time to begin alleviating some of the emotional side effects. This is where the presence of qualified mental health professionals can be of immense benefit. The depression and anxiety often experienced during detox can be a challenge to deal with effectively. A positive is that there exist a plethora of support options for those undergoing these challenges.
Therapy and counseling sessions, along with proper medication prescriptions, can allow one to manage the emotionally turbulent detox process. Managing the emotional side effects and arriving at a relatively stable mental state can be necessary to prevent relapse right at the moment when so much hard work has been accomplished.
In addition, for many people who have suffered through some form of Alcohol Use Disorder, there may be underlying emotional issues or past traumatic episodes that require serious attention. 12-step groups, therapy, and individualized treatment plans can all offer extended support throughout the detox process and on into the future.
Conclusion - The Road to Recovery
While alcohol detox can be an uncomfortable process that may involve substantial risk, it often represents a necessary first step towards freedom from dependence. If you are suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder, it is essential you seek help as soon as possible.
The path towards sobriety can be challenging, but fortunately, you don't have to walk it on your own. Find the support you need and begin the process of recovery. Commit to getting better—it begins with a phone call.
Alcohol Withdrawal. Medline Plus – U.S. National Library of Medicine.
How Long Does it Take to Detox From Alcohol? DualDiagnosis.org.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal? WebMD.
Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment, Symptoms, and Timeline. American Addiction Centers.