Today, most people drink. In fact, an estimated 86.5% of Americans drink at least occasionally – while 25.8% binge drink. That’s to be expected when alcohol makes up such a large part of our social habits. But, an estimated 5.5% of the total U.S. adult population, or 14.5 million people have an alcohol use disorder. That disorder is characterized by seeking behavior, chemical dependency, and inability to quit for long. A further 10-15% of regular drinkers may suffer from chemical dependency without seeking behavior – meaning you experience withdrawal symptoms if you quit, but you can quit.
Alcohol is socially accepted, common, and often expected. It’s easy to build up a habit and it’s difficult to put down. But, alcohol is also incredibly dangerous. Alcohol contributes to over 40,000 liver disease-related deaths per year in the United States. And, with contribution towards cirrhosis, accidents, road accidents, and malnutrition, alcohol abuse is estimated to account for 5.3% of global deaths yearly.
If you or a loved one has a problem, detox from alcohol and drugs is the first step. In addition, alcohol detox can be difficult, dangerous, and may require medical supervision. Here’s how long alcohol detox is likely to take and what happens as you quit drinking.
What is Alcohol Detox
Alcohol withdrawal is the process of quitting alcohol when you are chemically dependent on it. This results in changes in the brain including chemical production such as GABA, which influences the central nervous system. Detox is the clinical management of this withdrawal, sometimes using medication to reduce symptoms and risks. In other cases, detox is simply about social support, medical monitoring, and ensuring you get the fluids and nutrition you need to navigate detox safely. Plus, with medical monitoring, medical staff can respond quickly in case you begin to develop delirium tremens.
Detox benefits users through both emotional and physical support, giving you a significantly stronger chance of making it through. However, in this article, we’ll discuss how unmedicated alcohol withdrawal works and what the symptoms are. If you seek out detox, you may be prescribed something to reduce those symptoms.
How Long Does Alcohol Detox Take?
Alcohol withdrawal typically takes 7-14 days for the average drinker. If you have been drinking for a very long time, have a slow metabolism, consume excessive amounts of alcohol, or have a large amount of body fat, you may have a longer detox period. In addition, you may take longer to withdrawal from alcohol if you develop complications like delirium tremens. This timeline covers the most common duration of alcohol detox and may not reflect your actual experience.
Withdrawal begins – Most people begin to experience withdrawal symptoms within the first 4-14 hours of their last drink. Normally, that begins with feeling like you could go for another drink. Then, you’ll get an upset stomach, pain, cramping, nausea, and possibly vomiting. Anxiety will start to increase, and you may start to experience paranoia.
Symptoms Increase – Alcohol withdrawal symptoms normally increase over the first three days, or between 4 and 72 hours after quitting. The symptoms listed above will get worse. You’ll likely also experience heart palpitations, arrythmia, and fever. Cold and flu symptoms like fever, general malaise, and vomiting or diarrhea should be expected. Most people have difficulty sleeping. However, it’s important to get enough rest, to manage water intake, and to ensure that you’re eating. In particularly severe cases, you might start to feel confusion, anxiety, or panic. In this case, it’s always a good idea to consult with a doctor if you’re attempting to withdraw on your own. Additionally, you begin to risk seizures at this point, though most will be moderate. Seizures can be life threatening, if you experience one, have someone drive you to a hospital.
Plateau – Most symptoms plateau after the first 3 days and will remain steady for 2-5 days. Here, your risks of seizures are at their highest. However, your symptoms are unlikely to get worse. You’ll continue to experience the same symptoms as the previous step. It’s important to watch out for strong anxiety and paranoia, especially if paired with hallucinations (visual or auditory). If so, seek out medical attention immediately. Otherwise, the most important thing you can do is to stay hydrated. Make sure you’re getting enough water, eat even if it means eating nutritional supplements, and try to get some light exercise (walking) throughout the day.
Decline – Most people will see symptoms begin to abate after 5-7 days. If you experience complications, like delirium tremens, symptoms might extend as long as another 10 days. In most cases, symptoms will start to decline and will be gone after about 14 days.
If you’re getting medical management, you might have medication during this period to reduce the chances of seizures. You might also have counseling, emotional support, and peers to help ease your withdrawal with social support. This can help a great deal, as the worst part of withdrawal is often doing it alone.
Is it Safe to Withdraw from Alcohol Alone?
No. While you may be able to withdraw from alcohol without any major complications, withdrawing on your own is never safe. Alcohol withdrawal interacts with the central nervous system. Complications like Delirium Tremens can be severe, with a 5% mortality rate with ICU management. Getting early treatment and prevention for complications can save your life. Delirium Tremens also affects about 3-5% of all persons withdrawing from alcohol. Medical monitoring is important. To put that into context, 1-3 in every 2,500 persons withdrawing from alcohol is likely to die from delirium tremens without proper treatment.
In addition, even without complications, alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous. Here, your greatest risks are seizures and dehydration. Seizures, even mild ones, can cause significant risk of muscle damage, biting through the lips and tongue, and heart complications. Dehydration, which happens quickly during detox because of vomiting and diarrhea, can cause major complications including falls, hemorrhages of the brain, and even death.
Getting Help with Alcohol Detox
If you’re struggling with alcohol, getting help is an important first step. And, it is important that it be a first step. Detox is the first step of your journey to recovery. Most people with a substance use disorder have complex, underlying problems that pushed them to substance abuse to begin with. That might be mental health problems, it might be stress, it might be genetic vulnerability to addiction – but it’s important that you assess and treat it as part of recovery. Otherwise, your risks of relapse are significantly high.
Alcohol detox is an important first step. Getting help and having medical staff on hand to ensure you don’t develop complications can save your life. Having therapy, emotional support, and medical treatment during withdrawal can greatly ease the mental and physical effects of withdrawal.
Most detox programs are designed to last 2 weeks. From there, you’ll likely be asked to move into inpatient rehab or outpatient treatment, where you can receive treatment for addiction. You can also just go to detox – but it’s important to discuss this with your doctor to ensure it’s right for you. No matter what you choose, hopefully you can make it through withdrawal safely and easily and start your new life, alcohol free.