How Long Does it Take to Detox from Alcohol?

The amount of time it takes to go through alcohol withdrawal depends on each individual and factors like duration, frequency, and heaviness of drinking. For most people detox will start about seven hours after the last drink and persist for a few days. For those with severe withdrawal or delirium tremens, the process may last a week or more, and for a few unlucky people protracted withdrawal can last for a year. Alcohol withdrawal can be very dangerous and should never be attempted without supervision.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Any substance of abuse has the potential to cause symptoms of withdrawal during detox, but those caused by alcohol are often more severe and serious. The collection of these symptoms is known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome, or AWS. The exact symptoms, the severity, and the duration of AWS vary by individual.

The longer a person has been drinking, and the more heavily and frequently, the more severe and lasting AWS is likely to be.

How Bad is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol detox symptoms depend on how long a person has been dependent on alcohol and how heavily he or she drank in general and more recently. The symptoms of withdrawal typically begin seven to eight hours after a person’s last drink. Symptoms may include:

  • Irritation and anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Jumpiness.
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Clammy, sweaty skin
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Decreased appetite
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Tremors and shaking

Very heavy, long-term drinkers are susceptible to more serious symptoms and a condition known as delirium tremens. These include a fever, hallucinations, agitation, extreme confusion, and seizures.

General Alcohol Detox Timeline

Someone going through alcohol withdrawal will begin to experience the symptoms at seven to eight hours after having their last drink. For most people the symptoms begin to taper off after 48 to 72 hours, but everyone is different and some people will continue to experience uncomfortable side effects for several days or more. The worst, though, is most often over after the first two days. Heavier drinkers should anticipate and prepare for the potential for severe symptoms, like seizures and delirium tremens, to begin at about 24 to 48 hours. In most cases, they should be under the care of medical professionals during their detox.

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Alcohol Detox Timeline for Severe Withdrawal

For individuals who have been drinking heavily for a long period of time, detox brings on severe, even dangerous symptoms that may last for a few days:

  • 6 to 12 hours after last drink – Minor symptoms usually begin around seven to eight hours after the last drink and may include headaches, insomnia, anxiety, and loss of appetite.
  • 12 to 24 hours – At this point an individual may begin to experience hallucinations. These can be visual, auditory, or even tactile.
  • 24 to 48 hours – Some people may experience seizures at about 48 hours after detox begins.
  • 48 to 72 hours – Those who will experience delirium tremens will begin to have delusions, ongoing hallucinations, disorientation and confusion, a fever, and other symptoms.

The symptoms of delirium tremens typically recede after about seven days, although it is possible to keep experiencing them for a few days longer.

Protracted Alcohol Withdrawal

Protracted withdrawal syndrome, or PWS, is a condition that may occur after acute withdrawal from alcohol and that can persist for up to a year. Some people who have PWS experience extended withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, tremors, and increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. Others have symptoms that are opposite of what they experienced in withdrawal: decreased energy and metabolism, fatigue, and mental weariness. PWS is uncomfortable but can also increase the risk of relapse, so ongoing treatment for alcohol is important.

Alcohol Detox Should Always Be Supervised

Alcohol withdrawal is more than just uncomfortable; it has the potential to be severe, dangerous, and even fatal. For this reason, no one should attempt to detox from alcohol alone or without medical supervision. Possible complications of severe alcohol withdrawal may include respiratory depression and arrest, pneumonitis, heart arrhythmias, and of course seizures. Between five and 15 percent of people with delirium tremens die.

Supervision in a medical setting cannot reduce the duration of withdrawal, but it can minimize the side effects and reduce the risks of major complications and prevent fatalities. Detox is the first step toward recovery, so if you are struggling to stop drinking or are afraid of the withdrawal that will follow, find a good facility that specializes in assisted detox. Professionals can help you through the process and make sure you get the necessary ongoing treatment.