People with alcohol use disorder (AUD) may experience uncomfortable and potentially severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit. A supervised, medical detox can help people avoid unnecessary discomfort or life-threatening withdrawal complications.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their alcohol use, seeking professional help can make a difference.
What Is Alcohol Detox?
For many people with alcohol use disorder (AUD), detox is the first step in treatment. Supervised medical detox helps you manage distressing withdrawal symptoms, helps reduce the risk of withdrawal complications such as seizures, and keeps you as safe and comfortable as possible.7
Alcohol Detox Process
Most detox programs will include the following 3 elements:7
- An assessment of your physical and mental health that will help your care team create a treatment plan.
- Stabilization, which means the actual process of withdrawal as your body detoxifies and returns to an alcohol-free state. This process often involves prescription medicines.
- Getting ready for further treatment. After detox, many people continue their recovery in inpatient or outpatient rehab. Formal alcohol rehab treatment helps you identify the underlying issues that led to the addiction and teaches you how to prevent relapse.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms range from mild to severe. Which symptoms you have, how bad they are, and how long they last will depend on factors such as how much and how often you drink, your age, and your overall health.7
Symptoms of mild alcohol withdrawal include:
- Heart palpitations.
- Gastrointestinal disturbances.
In addition to the relatively mild symptoms above, moderate withdrawal may also include:
- Hyperthermia (elevated body temperature).
- Diaphoresis (sweating)
- Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
- Increased systolic blood pressure
- Tachypnea (rapid, shallow breathing)
Severe alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizures and delirium tremens (DTs). Delirium tremens symptoms may include:4
- Body tremors.
- Severe confusion or disorientation.
If you suspect you or someone you know is experiencing this form of withdrawal, seek medical attention immediately.
When Will Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Start?
Some symptoms of mild alcohol withdrawal may be experienced as soon as 8 hours after the last time alcohol is consumed.2,3,6
Depending on the magnitude of physical dependence, additional withdrawal symptoms may continue to arise beyond 24 hours, with some potentially severe effects emerging in the range of 2 to 4 days after abstinence.6
How Long Will Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Last?
The alcohol withdrawal symptoms timeline is different for everyone but a full range of alcohol withdrawal symptoms may persist for as little as a few hours up through several weeks after withdrawal has begun. The most severe symptoms commonly develop as many as two to three days after the last drink.1,3
In many cases, physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal will largely begin to decrease and altogether and resolve within 5 to 7 days.
Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment
The type of detox program, alcohol detox timeline, or level of intensity needed for effective alcohol withdrawal management will depend on the severity of the addiction, the magnitude of alcohol dependence, and the risk of experiencing a complicated withdrawal.
A doctor or other treatment professional may evaluate for the above factors prior to making a recommendation for the level of detox care and detox timeline needed to keep a person safe and comfortable.
Outpatient alcohol detox may be a good fit for people at low risk for severe withdrawal. Withdrawal progress is monitored through frequent check-up appointments within outpatient clinical settings (e.g., doctor’s office), allowing for the level of care to be escalated if needed.
Inpatient alcohol detox may be suited to people at risk for moderate to severe withdrawal who need 24-hour medically-supervised detox services.7 Staff at these detox programs will monitor recovery progress and regularly assess for any withdrawal complications to make sure the patient is not in danger.
Benzodiazepines or other sedative medications may be administered during the process. Inpatient detoxification also serves as a way to keep individuals somewhat removed from potentially triggering social and environmental stimuli that might increase the risk of relapse.3
Additional Alcoholism Treatment Options
Following successful completion of detox, an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation program may be recommended to allow further work toward recovery and relapse prevention.
Services that may be included as a part of a comprehensive treatment plan for alcohol use disorders include:
- Group therapy
- Individual counseling
- Family counseling
- Support group meetings
- Wellness activities
- Medication treatments
Behavioral therapies can help those struggling with alcohol abuse focus on avoiding old patterns and identify the root causes of addiction.
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. Bayard, M., Mcintyre, J., Hill, K.R., Woodside, J. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. American Family Physician 69(6): 1443-1450.
. Kattimani, S. and Bharadwaj, B. (2013). Clinical Management of Alcohol Withdrawal: A Systematic Review. Ind Psychiatry; Jul-Dec 22 (2); 100-108.
. Hugh Myrick, M.D., and Raymond F. Anton, M.D. (1998). Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal. Alcohol Health & Research World 22(1): 38-43.
. Rahman A, Paul M. (2018). Delirium Tremens (DT). U.S. National Library of Medicine.
. Herbert L. Muncie Jr., M.D., Yasmin Yasinian, M.D. Linda Oge’, M.D. (2013). Outpatient Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. Am Fam Physician 88(9): 589-595.
. MedlinePlus (2016). Alcohol Withdrawal.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Detoxification and Substance Abuse. Treatment Improvement Protocol. (TIP) Series, No. 45. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 15-4131.