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How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last? An Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

Depressed female suffering alcohol withdrawal symptoms

Published: April 16, 2024

Alcohol addiction is a medical condition that affects nearly 30 million Americans. It can be detrimental to many areas of your life and can even be life-threatening.

One of the biggest obstacles for many when treating their addiction is alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which occurs when a person with alcohol use disorder (AUD) stops or reduces their alcohol intake.

While AUD is a temporary condition, the amount of time alcohol withdrawal lasts will vary from person to person and is influenced by many factors. Receiving proper treatment can make the withdrawal process safer and less unpleasant.

Keep reading to learn about the timeframe of alcohol withdrawal including why withdrawal happens, what affects the length of withdrawal, and treatment options.

What Triggers Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is triggered by the reduction or cessation of alcohol intake in someone who has an alcohol addiction. To understand why withdrawal happens, it is first important to understand how addiction occurs.

AUD occurs when someone becomes psychologically or physically dependent on alcohol to get through their day or perform regular tasks. Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, meaning it slows down activity in your brain and spinal cord.

More specifically, it interferes with receptors in your brain and alters brain chemistry by increasing certain neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin and inhibiting others such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate.

Over time, your brain and body get used to functioning with alcohol and the effects of alcohol. This causes alcohol dependence and, in turn, withdrawal, when an alcohol-dependent person tries to reduce or eliminate their alcohol consumption.

When you suddenly reduce or stop your alcohol intake, your body reacts to the change with withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

There are many symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. For the most part, they are very unpleasant and can make it difficult to quit alcohol use. In some cases, withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous without proper medical supervision.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • High blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Fever/high body temperature
  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium tremens (DT)
  • Abnormal heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Headache
  • Dilated pupils
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shakiness
  • Nightmares
  • Confusion
  • Coma
  • Pneumonia
  • Heart attack

Withdrawal is different for everyone, so some people will experience a few symptoms of withdrawal while others may experience many.

Anxiety and mood swings are both common symptoms that occur during withdrawal. You may feel your mood and mental state to be unstable during the withdrawal process. Insomnia is another symptom many people experience. All three of these symptoms may be due to changes in brain chemistry and your circadian rhythm.

Other common symptoms like nausea, tremors, and sweating are a result of your body processing the alcohol and an increase in CNS activity.

Typically known as the most severe symptom of alcohol withdrawal, DT can include symptoms like extreme confusion, agitation, seizures, hallucinations, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and more, which can be very dangerous.

The Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

Though the alcohol withdrawal timeline varies from person to person, there is a general timeline most people loosely follow with alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

The first signs of withdrawal typically occur anywhere from six hours to a few days after your last drink. For most people, symptoms peak between 24 and 72 hours but can peak several days into alcohol withdrawal.

Over time, you will start to notice a reduction in withdrawal symptoms. This can take days, weeks, or even months in some cases.

Day-by-Day Progression of Alcohol Withdrawal

Over the first few days after you reduce or stop your alcohol intake, you’ll likely experience specific withdrawal symptoms. These can include nausea, vomiting, shaking, sweating, anxiety, mood swings, depression, brain fog, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, tingling in your extremities, alcohol cravings, and headaches.

The intensity of your symptoms will likely fluctuate over the first few days. In the first 6-12 hours you will likely experience somewhat mild symptoms. Once you’ve reached the 24-hour mark, you may start to experience symptoms of mild to moderate intensity.

For most people, the intensity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms is the highest between 24 and 72 hours. Typically, this is also the period in which people experience severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms like hallucinations, seizures, and DT.

After 72 hours, your symptoms may start to resolve, though this is dependent on several factors.

Factors Influencing Withdrawal Duration

Many factors can influence the duration of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. These are usually related to the health and physical traits of an individual.

First, the length of alcohol withdrawal is dependent on how long you’ve been drinking alcohol as well as the intensity of alcohol consumption. The longer you abuse an addictive substance, the more likely you are to experience more severe and long-lasting effects. This is also worsened by heavy drinking.

Your overall health and well-being can also have a great impact on the duration of your alcohol withdrawal symptoms. If you’re struggling with health problems, you’re much more likely to experience a longer duration of withdrawal symptoms. Specific health conditions that can increase the duration include low platelet count, brain lesions, older age, low potassium and sodium levels, previous dehydration, and liver problems.

In addition to your physical health, your mental health can influence the duration of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. If you have co-occurring mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), you may be more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms for a longer duration.

Some people also develop a condition called Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) which can influence your recovery from alcohol withdrawal. PAWS refers to the withdrawal symptoms some people experience after the acute stage of withdrawal.

PAWS can last weeks, months, and in severe cases, even years. Symptoms can include brain fog, mental health issues, lack of motivation, sleep problems, cravings, and memory loss. PAWS can complicate recovery, making it difficult to remain sober and prevent relapse.

Medical Management of Alcohol Withdrawal

There are several medical interventions used to manage alcohol withdrawal. These include detoxification services, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and sedatives.

Medical alcohol detox programs are commonly offered in addiction rehab programs. They are designed to make withdrawal safer and as comfortable as possible. Detoxing on your own can be very dangerous, which is why medical detox is so important. Your healthcare provider can monitor your vitals, manage your symptoms and cravings, and administer any beneficial treatments like IV fluids, vitamins, or electrolytes.

Benzodiazepines are usually the go-to medication-based treatment for alcohol withdrawal. Benzodiazepines (“benzos”) interact with the same receptors as alcohol does in your brain, which helps reduce the effects of alcohol and withdrawal symptoms. Some common benzodiazepines used to treat alcohol withdrawal syndrome include lorazepam, diazepam, and chlordiazepoxide

Barbiturates and sedatives are also sometimes used to treat symptoms like alcohol withdrawal seizures or DT.

Psychological Support and Addiction Treatment

On top of the medical care mentioned above, psychological support and proper addiction treatment are also essential in treating alcohol withdrawal and addiction.

Addiction treatment programs typically fall into two categories: inpatient or outpatient. Inpatient treatment requires participants to live in a rehab facility throughout the program whereas participants of outpatient treatment travel to a treatment center for care on a regular basis and then return home that evening.

An important part of addiction treatment is the prioritization of one’s mental health. This is often addressed through the help of mental health professionals and services such as behavioral therapy and counseling. Both services are great for working through any trauma or issues that exacerbate addiction as well as treating co-occurring mental health disorders.

The support of a treatment program and these individualized treatment services during alcohol withdrawal and the recovery process can make the task of treating alcohol addiction much less intimidating. Comprehensive treatment approaches can help support individuals mentally, physically, and socially, making the likelihood of long-lasting recovery much higher.

Even after addiction treatment, it’s important to prioritize relapse prevention strategies. Relapse prevention is any treatment or strategy you can use to decrease the risk of relapse. The idea is to lessen the effects of any triggers or stressors that may encourage relapse.

Relapse prevention looks different for every individual but it can include continuing therapy or counseling sessions, joining a support group, taking up new hobbies, living in a sober home, or even trying alternative therapies like art therapy or equine therapy.

Recovery and Beyond

Recovery from alcohol addiction, or any substance addiction for that matter, is not a linear process and can come with many ebbs and flows. Substance addictions cannot be cured but they can be treated and effectively managed to achieve long-term sobriety.

The obstacles you come across during your recovery journey can be challenging, which is why ongoing support and lifestyle changes are so important. Having support from medical professionals as well as support from your family and loved ones can make all the difference. Many people find that making lifestyle changes such as taking on new hobbies, meeting new friends, or even living in a new environment can positively affect their recovery.

With continuing support and positive changes, long-lasting recovery is much more attainable.

External support can also be incredibly beneficial not only for the individual with AUD but also for their friends and family.

Here are some resources and support networks for alcohol addiction:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) – Locate AA meetings in your area.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) – SAMHSA offers a treatment locator that is confidential and anonymous for finding substance use disorder (SUD) treatment across the country.
  • Al-Anon Family Groups – Find Al-Anon support meetings for loved ones of someone with AUD.
  • Adult Children of Alcoholics – Here, you’ll find support meetings for adults who grew up with alcohol-addicted parents.
  • RehabNet – Browse our state-specific resource lists of accredited and reliable rehab centers.

Getting involved in your community and finding external support during and after alcohol withdrawal treatment can make a huge difference in long-term recovery.

Find Recovery Options for Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol withdrawal is a common part of recovering from alcohol addiction. It can be very unpleasant and even dangerous without the proper care.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome usually occurs just hours after alcohol intake ceases and can peak around two to three days after. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and some can even be dangerous.

However, the length of alcohol withdrawal can vary from person to person depending on the state of their health and how long they’ve been abusing alcohol. Thankfully, many medical interventions and treatment options can help. With long-term recovery tactics, a sober life is possible.

There are countless benefits to treating alcohol addiction including improved health, improved relationships, improved career, new friendships, and even reduced risk of death from alcohol abuse.

If you or a loved one has more questions surrounding alcohol withdrawal and alcohol addiction treatment, give our helpline a call today.

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