Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline: How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

There are a few reasons to want to give up alcohol, you may be on a health kick and want to swop the weekly drink at the pub for the gym, need to take medication that is contraindicated with alcohol (antidepressants, certain antibiotics etc) or have noticed that your social drinking has become a drink to get up, more to get through your day and the last one to go to sleep.

Whatever your reasons to start out on this journey, you may be concerned about what your experience will be like and how long the withdrawal may take after you stop drinking alcohol. Every person’s journey to recovery who drink alcohol is different so you may feel all of these withdrawal symptoms or only some for several weeks.

Alcohol withdrawal timeline

Because alcohol intoxicates the brain, it is normal that alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur shortly after someone with an addiction quits drinking. If you think you’re suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms, it’s important to know how long they’ll last. An alcohol withdrawal timeline shows the symptoms you might experience if you suddenly stop drinking alcohol.

People who have heavy drinking habits may experience severe withdrawal symptoms, including seizures and delirium tremens (DTs). This timeline of alcohol withdrawal symptoms may vary from person to person, depending on how much alcohol you drink and how long you’ve been drinking.

General alcohol withdrawal timeline guidelines

The general guidelines according to the Industrial Psychiatry Journal of what you can expect while experiencing alcohol withdrawal are:

1st Day of alcohol withdrawal(Stage 1 & 2):

Within 6hrs after your last alcohol intake, the first symptoms of alcohol withdrawal start which are usually mild:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heart rate/Increased blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Sleep disturbances

12 – 24hrs after you stop drinking

At this point, a small percentage of people may experience withdrawal symptoms with hallucinations:

  • Tactile hallucinations, such as having a sense of itching, burning, or numbness that isn’t actually occurring
  • Auditory hallucinations, or hearing sounds that don’t exist
  • Visual hallucinations, or seeing images that don’t exist

2nd Day of alcohol withdrawal(Stage 3):

The minor withdrawal symptoms you have been experiencing will usually continue through the second day and may now include:

  • Headache
  • Stomach irritability
  • Increased hand tremors

3rd Day – 1 week of alcohol withdrawal(Stage 4):

Between 48hrs and 72hrs since your last drink or decrease in alcohol consumption, you may experience severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal called DTs – delirium tremens or Alcohol Withdrawal delirium.

These most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal only affect heavy long-term drinkers (defined as 15 drinks a week for men & 8 drinks a week for women). Your risk to experience delirium tremens is higher if you drink heavily and also have:

  • A history of alcohol withdrawal
  • A history of AWD (Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium)
  • Other health problems in addition to alcoholism
  • a history of seizure disorder or other brain damage
  • Low platelet counts
  • Low potassium levels
  • Low sodium levels
  • Older age at the time of alcohol withdrawal
  • Preexisting dehydration
  • Presence of brain lesions
  • Use of other street drugs

Common Symptoms of AWD or DTs

Alcohol withdrawal delirium or Delirium tremens is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. It can cause the following severe withdrawal symptoms:

  • Agitation or irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Delirium (an extremely disturbed state of mind)
  • Delusions (irrationally believing things that are untrue)
  • Excessive sweating
  • Excitement
  • Eye and muscle movement problems
  • Fatigue
  • Fear
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there)
  • Increased heart rate or breathing rate or high blood pressure
  • Increased startle reflex (an exaggerated reaction to unexpected stimuli)
  • Involuntary muscle contractions
  • Nausea
  • Nightmares
  • Restlessness
  • Seizures
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, or touch
  • Stomach pain
  • Sudden mood changes

These symptoms typically start within 48 hours of stopping drinking, although they could occur as early as 18 hours after the last drink. These serious symptoms may last for up to a few days in some cases and adversely impact your physical health. The shaking and high blood pressure symptoms can be fatal if not treated, so it’s important to seek professional medical attention as soon as possible if you experience these symptoms.

Mild symptoms of withdrawal will usually peak between 18 to 24hrs and start to decrease after about five days. In rare cases, moderate withdrawal symptoms (rapid heart rate, illusions)  can last for a month. But all symptoms will have ceased in under 6 months of medical treatment for alcohol addiction.

What should I do if I drink heavily and am diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder?

If your drinking habits have been heavy for a long time you may have a seizure within 6hrs of your last drink. It is advised that if you have been a long-term heavy drinker or been diagnosed with an Alcohol Use Disorder that you have medical supervision by an experienced medical professional during the detox and withdrawal phase of your recovery.

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What Treatment Options are Available for Managing Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

It can be challenging to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms on your own. You may feel disoriented and confused if you’re suffering from alcohol withdrawal. You may also be experiencing nausea, vomiting, sweating, and muscle aches.

If you want to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms effectively, it’s essential to seek medical treatment, as they can be life-threatening. There are several options available that can help you through this difficult time with minimal discomfort.

Phases of Alcohol Abuse Treatment

The treatment of alcohol withdrawal syndrome consists of two phases:

Rehabilitation phase

After detoxification, you will enter the rehabilitation phase of treatment for alcohol dependence done as a part of outpatient management. This phase typically involves counselling with a counsellor or therapist specialising in addiction treatment.

Counselling including cognitive behavioural therapy and learning coping strategies are recommended to deal with your alcohol addiction and any additional mental health issues (dual diagnosis) that may resurface upon cessation. These counselling sessions aim to help you learn how to avoid drinking again after leaving rehab so that you can continue living a sober life without relapsing into alcoholism later in life.

Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are also a great way to share your experiences and learn from other people who have been through similar experiences. You also get to build a sense of community and friendship, which can be helpful in times of stress or uncertainty.

These communities can provide you with the support that you need during difficult times, such as when you are feeling overwhelmed by your addiction or alcohol cravings or when you are trying to avoid binge drinking or quit drinking, completely.

Detoxification phase

During the detox phase, medications are used to control symptoms so that you can safely stop drinking. Medications such as benzodiazepines are often used during detoxification to help ease alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Once these symptoms have been controlled, your medical professional will gradually reduce the number of medications over several days or weeks until you no longer need them.

The NHS recommends that you start with a visit to your GP for detox from alcohol, or visit the NHS directory service for free services by medical professionals.

In some cases following a medical assessment, your GP may recommend that you start at an inpatient medical facility to assist with the alcohol detox period and then continue your treatment for alcohol withdrawal syndrome as an outpatient.

Residential Treatment

The option of residential treatment is recommended if you:

  • Are a long-term heavy drinker and have developed alcohol dependence
  • Have not been able to moderate your alcohol consumption
  • Are at risk of AWD or DTs
  • Live in an environment that is not conducive to your recovery
  • Have underlying mental health issues or a brain injury that requires treatment at the same time

You will go through a supervised medical detox process for alcohol addiction to help you avoid unnecessary discomfort and or any withdrawal complications that may result from severe symptoms.

This type of treatment aims to help the patient learn how to live without alcohol while also helping them build coping skills, such as healthy ways of managing stress and negative emotions.

You will be offered 24/7 medical support to help with the withdrawal symptoms due to alcohol dependence which may include:

  • Benzodiazepines – to ease mental anxiety, seizures and muscle contractions.
  • Neuroleptic Medications – to depress nervous system activity.
  • Nutritional Support – During detox you will require a lot of hydrating fluids (excluding all caffeine/energy drinks) and nutritious foods. If you are unable to eat or drink you will receive nutrients (folic acid, thiamine and magnesium) and be kept hydrated intravenously.

Once the immediate alcohol withdrawal symptoms have passed you may be prescribed a course of other drugs to reduce the likelihood of relapse:

  • Disulfiram – reduces alcohol dependency and cravings and can make you violently ill if you do consume anything alcoholic (this will include any oral medication that contains alcohol and even mouthwash)
  • Naltrexone – may reduce cravings and maintain abstinence by blocking opioid receptors in your central nervous system.
  • Topiramate – reduces alcohol consumption and extends abstinence periods.

Once you have completed detox and are no longer experiencing any withdrawal symptoms, medical professionals will start your recovery program, which can last anywhere from 30 days up to 6 months or more. This depends on what kind of care you need during that time frame.

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    When a residential rehab is a good option?

    Residential rehab can be a good option if you’re looking for more intensive treatment than outpatient care can offer. It’s also a great choice if you need extra support and structure to stay sober while living in the real world or if you’re dealing with other mental health issues that require more attention than outpatient management and care can provide.

    The alcohol-dependent individual may suffer from both physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms at the same time. The amount of time it takes to sober up again after you have experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms completely depends on how much and how frequently you drank.

    The more you drink, the longer your body will take to detox and recover. Generally speaking, though, the severe symptoms tend to clear within just a few days if given immediate medical attention.

    Alcohol withdrawal can sometimes feel very uncomfortable—and in rare instances, it can be life-threatening—but you’ll get through it. With professional medical help and the support of your loved ones, you can cope effectively with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

    However, you should be determined to quit alcohol use no matter how hard it seems. It’s nothing that can’t be managed, and you should never let fear or desperation tempt you into unsafe or self-destructive behaviour.

    Jason Sheirs
    Author / Jason Shiers / Dip. Psych MBACP
    Jason Shiers is a Certified Transformative Coach & Certified Psychotherapist who is a specialist in addiction, trauma and eating disorders. He has been working in the field of addiction for 25 years now.