Uncertainty can stop people from making some of the most important decisions of their lives. Some of these decisions can quite literally be life or death choices. If you know you need to detox from alcohol, you might be hesitant because you’re not sure of the road ahead. You want to understand how long it takes to detox from alcohol, how dangerous the process is, and what will happen after that.
The process is never exactly the same for two individuals. A lot of factors come into play. How long you’ve been drinking, how heavily you’ve been drinking, and the way that alcohol has already negatively impacted your body will be major factors in your detox process. Everyone requires specialized, individually-focused care throughout the process, but there are a few common threads that most people can expect to experience.
A Timeline Of What To Expect
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms come in stages. These stages will occur at different points for different people. Some people may have symptoms that persist for up to a year following alcohol withdrawals, while others will find that they’re mostly back to normal after about a week.
4 To 8 Hours After Your Last Drink
Most people with alcohol abuse disorders will be familiar with the symptoms that occur anywhere between 4 and 8 hours after they’ve had their last drink. They will generally have a drink to make the symptoms stop. Many people who use alcohol heavily describe this feeling as a general malaise with a strong alcohol craving.
Although rare, heavy users may experience withdrawal seizures as little as six hours after the alcohol has left their system. These seizures may persist throughout the detoxification process.
12 To 24 Hours Sober
One of the most common symptoms during this period of withdrawal is the onset of symptoms similar to the flu. Heavy users might begin to experience slight hallucinations, like seeing, hearing, or feeling things that others cannot.
24 To 48 Hours Sober
Around this time, more significant flu-like symptoms may develop. Headaches, nausea, and tremors are commonly observed side effects. These side effects will likely escalate until they come to a peak and then begin to resolve within the next few days.
48 To 72 Hours Sober
Within this time period, symptoms of a condition called delirium tremens, or DTs, may appear. Not everyone who detoxes from alcohol will experience these symptoms. Seizures, delusions, disorientation, and hallucinations may occur. The heart rate often escalates, causing feelings of panic and making relaxation exceedingly difficult.
72 Hours To One Month Sober
Symptoms generally escalate to their most severe points around the 72-hour mark. After that, they will begin to slowly subside over the course of the next few days. Some individuals, particularly heavy users, may find that some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can follow them indefinitely.
Symptoms That Persist Longer Than A Month
If you’ve had a problematic relationship with alcohol for a number of years, you may be more likely to experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome, or PAWS. The beginning of supervised detox is considered the acute withdrawal phase. This is when symptoms are the most severe and usually the most dangerous. Symptoms that occur after, or post, are post-acute withdrawal symptoms.
Some people experience PAWS for a few weeks. Others may not be completely past PAWS for as long as two years. This is because of the way alcohol interacts with the brain. Since alcohol acts as a suppressant to the brain’s neurotransmitters, their ability to properly power the body is significantly inhibited when someone constantly consumes alcohol.
The brain attempts to rebalance its chemicals properly, but it may need to fully heal before the brain and body can work together to function normally.
PAWS typically involves tremors, brain fog, forgetfulness, mood swings, loss of motor coordination, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and the persistent urge to return to alcohol.
People with PAWS typically do not require inpatient treatment for the duration of these symptoms. Outpatient treatment and continued commitment to recovery are necessary to help manage the discomfort and alcohol cravings that come with persistent symptoms.
How Can Inpatient Detox Help?
Supervised detox isn’t just a helpful tool—it’s an absolutely necessary tool. Withdrawal from alcohol can be a dangerous process, and it’s most dangerous for individuals who have been heavy users of alcohol for an extended period of time. With reactions like seizures being relatively commonplace, medical supervision is crucial to safe detox.
Although there is no way to prevent the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, the side effects can be managed with adequate medical care. Patients often feel better if they’re well-hydrated, and their nausea can be kept under control. They should also be monitored for rapid heart rate. An escalated heart rate can be dangerous both physically and psychologically, as a racing heart tends to contribute to feelings of anxiety or panic.
Patients with delirium tremens especially require inpatient care. Patients who are hallucinating and experiencing delusions may not know where they are or understand what is happening to them. In this scenario, a medical professional will know how to help.
People experiencing delirium tremens are often combative with their families, sometimes forgetting who they are. It can be distressing for everyone around the patient, especially when they don’t understand what to do. Let a medical professional supervise this part of the withdrawal process.
Rehabilitation From Alcohol Use Disorder
Detoxing is only the first part of a two-part process. It won’t do much good to detox if the cause of the drug use is not uncovered or properly addressed. Detox without addiction treatment is more likely to lead to relapse. Alcohol is readily accessible and relatively inexpensive, so most people with alcohol use disorder won’t have to go out of their way to get their hands on more.
They’re more likely to want to get their hands on more if they’re experiencing post-acute withdrawal symptoms, which can escalate cravings. Even if they don’t, the temptation will still be strong.
Detoxing does not remedy the psychological factors that lead people to addiction. People who turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism may not inherently understand why they’ve made the decision to do so. Speaking with an individual therapist and listening to others share in a group setting can help make causes and problematic behavior patterns more apparent.
After you’ve uncovered the patterns and behaviors that contribute to your addiction to alcohol, you’ll work with your individual therapist to create a personalized plan that includes a personal roadmap for continued sobriety. You’ll talk about your goals, work towards establishing better coping mechanisms and healthier habits, and you’ll receive the knowledge and resources you need to remain committed to your goal.
It’s important that people recovering from alcohol use disorder stay committed to their recovery, especially because alcohol is ubiquitous. There are no TV advertisements for heroin, or billboards for methamphetamine. You can’t order cocaine at a restaurant or buy opioid pain medications for a few dollars near the dairy at the grocery store. Alcohol is unique in the sense that society doesn’t treat it like every other drug.
The temptation will always be around you while you’re maintaining recovery. You can’t live in complete isolation to avoid that temptation. Instead, you’ll need to modify the way you live your life and take actionable steps to ascertain that you can keep your commitment to recovery.
Most people find that they need to permanently alter their habits in order to support their continued sobriety. This can mean taking a pass on social events that revolve around alcohol and outings at places like bars or pubs. It might mean finding a roommate who doesn’t keep beer in the fridge or letting go of some friends who don’t usually make healthy choices.
It also means finding healthy outlets for emotions and stress that don’t involve escaping through substance abuse. Aftercare typically involves ongoing therapy or some kind of outpatient treatment, at least for a while. You deserve to prioritize your wellbeing and the commitments you’ve made to yourself. Aftercare is necessary for your health.
Although the amount of time it takes to detox can vary from person to person, recovery is a lifelong commitment. Detox is only the first step in a series of several steps you must be continually committed to.
Finding the right support is one of the most important facets of a successful lifelong journey. Many people choose a rehabilitation center that offers inpatient detox and stick with the same team all the way through their outpatient process to be sure that their care is dedicated and consistent.