How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

Facing alcohol addiction is never easy, but once the decision is made, healing can begin. Whether it’s yourself or a loved one that will be going through the alcohol withdrawal process, you probably have some questions about what the journey entails. How long does it take for withdrawal symptoms to surface? How long does alcohol withdrawal symptoms last? Does a safe detox need to be done in a treatment center or at home?

In this post, we will cover the timeline of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, how long they can be expected to last and how to safely go through this process and set yourself or a loved one up for success. Let’s begin!

What is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal refers to a group of symptoms that occur when a person suddenly stops drinking alcohol after they have been dependent on it. It most commonly occurs in adults but can happen in teenagers. The more you drink, the more likely you are to experience withdrawal symptoms. If you have other medical conditions, you are also more likely to have severe withdrawal symptoms.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?

The reason why alcohol withdrawal occurs is because the brain becomes over-excited, which is common during any type of detox process. When you drink alcohol, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is inhibited and excitability in the brain is reduced. When the alcohol stops, the brain turns back on and becomes overactive. This is what starts withdrawal symptoms, as some of the first effects include anxiety, nervousness, depression and irritability.

Who is At Risk for Withdrawal Symptoms?

Anyone who is dependent on alcohol can experience withdrawal effects. As the body looks for the chemical that it depends on, the side effects of withdrawal begin, whether you’ve been drinking for weeks, months or years.

Generally speaking, the more you drink, the more likely you are to go through these symptoms, and the more serious they may be. However, each person is entirely unique. Your detox experience will depend on other factors unique to you, such as your age, body type and lifestyle.

What is the Timeline for Alcohol Withdrawal?

While each person will go through withdrawal in a different way, there is a general timeline that the side effects follow. Knowing what these are and how they follow each other is helpful. You can anticipate what’s coming next and not be frightened by some of the symptoms that you or a loved one might be feeling. And remember, if you detox in a medically supervised rehabilitation center like The River Source, many of these symptoms can be managed so that you do not have to endure the full pain and discomfort.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can occur as early as two hours after your last drink. Symptoms usually peak within 24 to 48 hours and tend to be most uncomfortable at this point. Withdrawal from alcohol can be very uncomfortable and many alcoholics keep drinking in order to avoid these these symptoms. Often, withdrawal from alcohol is not easy. 

Here is a breakdown of the symptoms that are experienced during alcohol withdrawal.

6-12 hours after stopping alcohol:

  • Agitation

  • Shaking

  • Anxiety or stress

  • Headaches  

  • Nausea/vomiting

12-24 hours after stopping alcohol:

  • Hand tremors

  • Seizures

  • Disorientation

48 hours after stopping alcohol:

  • Insomnia

  • High blood pressure

  • High fever

  • Excessive sweating

  • Delirium tremens

  • Hallucinations

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are affected by several different factors, including how often the person drank, how much was consumed in a typical setting, how long the person drank for and other health factors. Even though symptoms are done peaking around 48 to 72 hours, less serious effects can go for weeks.

In fact, you may have heard about Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) before. PAWS involves withdrawal symptoms that occur after the initial detox process has been completed. It can make things very difficult for newly sober individuals, especially because PAWS can last anywhere from a few weeks to 12 months. The most common symptoms of PAWS include:

  • Irritability

  • Mood swings

  • Anxiety

  • Fatigue

  • Memory problems

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Dizziness

  • Delayed reflexes

Since PAWS can be a natural part of the recovery process, it’s important to be prepared and proactive. There are things you can do to decrease the symptoms, such as by practicing meditation daily, adopting a dependable sleep schedule, maintaining sober friendships, eating healthy meals, exercising daily and attending your AA meetings. The brain has the capacity to heal, but you need to give it time.

Can Alcohol Withdrawal Be Fatal?

Though it’s not common, it is possible to die from alcohol withdrawal. It tends to be more likely for someone who has been a heavy drinker for many years and suffers severe withdrawal symptoms. Abruptly taking alcohol away from the body can lead to heart arrhythmias and kidney and liver dysfunction. Even more concerning, however, is the seizures that can accompany alcohol withdrawal.

Delirium tremens are one of the more extreme side effects that can take place during the detox phase. The level of consciousness and delirium can be fatal in approximately 1 to 15 percent of cases. For individuals who are older, have poor liver function or have been heavy drinkers for many years, delirium tremens can be markedly worse.

It’s also possible to suffer other complications from the seizures, such as choking on food or falling and hitting your head. Not everyone who withdrawals from alcohol will experience delirium tremens. If you or a loved one makes it through the first 72 hours without a seizure, your chances for having one are less likely.

With the potential risk of death when going through alcohol withdrawal, it’s highly recommended that you or your loved one seek help from an addiction treatment center like The River Source. Let’s find out more about the options that are available to you in the next section.

How Can I Safely Withdrawal from Alcohol?

Now that you know how long withdrawal from alcohol lasts, let’s move onto how to safely start and endure this process. The goals of any treatment program are to monitor the patient, determine the severity of their withdrawal symptoms and provide them with medications to manage their symptoms.

For example, when discussing delirium tremens in the section above, this loss of consciousness would be prevented with an anti-seizure drug during treatment. Other medications that may be used during detox are beta-blockers to slow the heart rate and reduce tremors, and benzodiazepines to reduce anxiety withdrawal symptoms.

Below are some options that are available to those struggling with drinking problems. Be sure to ask each treatment program you consider about the types of medications they use to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

  • Inpatient Treatment. Inpatient treatment programs are highly recommended because they offer a safe, medically supervised environment for people struggling with alcohol addiction. A full continuum of care can be offered as well, including detox, counseling and continuing care.

  • Outpatient Treatment. Outpatient treatment programs allow patients to continue their daily responsibilities while receiving treatment. Though all drinking problems are serious, outpatient rehab tends to be best for those with less severe issues, such as functional alcoholics.

  • Counseling. Counseling comes in many forms: individual, family and group. Alcohol rehab counselors are available to help patients through withdrawal symptoms and teach recovering alcoholics the life skills needed to live a life of sobriety.

  • Support Groups. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Al-Anon are excellent sources of support and information in early recovery. Members can discuss challenges and share their treatment goals with others in recovery.

What is the Outlook for Alcohol Addiction Recovery?

When you’re first starting out and going through withdrawal symptoms, it can feel like there is no end in sight. Always keep in mind that withdrawal from alcohol does not last forever. Many people who go through this process are able to make a full recovery, and there’s no reason why you or a loved one can’t, too.

Alcohol withdrawal is physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting, but it helps to have a great support network behind you. This support network starts with the right treatment center and then branches out to your AA groups and sober friends and family. Before starting any type of treatment program, make sure that you do your research and choose an option that will make the early recovery process most successful for you.

Why is Treatment Needed After Detox?

Some people wonder why a treatment program is necessary after detox, so let’s talk about this. Treatment for alcohol withdrawal syndrome doesn’t address the disease of addiction. An alcohol treatment program does. Ideally, this treatment should follow immediately after detox with no lapse in between.

Going through the withdrawal process simply means that the chemical is out of your system. However, you haven’t learned any of the skills to live in the real world without alcohol. How do you plan to spend your time? How will you react to stressful situations? What happens when someone starts drinking in front of you?

Through an addiction treatment program, you are taught how to change your negative thinking patterns and destructive behaviors. You are taught about addiction and your personal risk factors for the disease. With the right tools and education, you can avoid falling into the same patterns as before. You can also learn how to live a life of sobriety – one that is fulfilling and satisfying.

Conclusion

The alcohol withdrawal process is often intimidating, but every recovery story has to start somewhere. The best thing you can do for yourself or a loved one is to choose a treatment center that offers supervised detox and a treatment program after. This way, you get the treatment that is needed to get sober and work through your underlying problems. Your symptoms will also be successfully managed during the withdrawal process, providing you with the energy needed to get through this process and move onto counseling.

In a medically supervised environment, you can expect the highest quality care, personalized attention and a more comfortable detox process overall. For more information about starting the alcohol withdrawal process in a safe and effective environment, call The River Source.