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Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline – How Long Does It Last?

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

Recovering from alcohol abuse or dependence requires going through withdrawal. Alcohol affects the way the mind and body work, to the extent that it is not possible to recover from an abuse or dependence situation until both body and mind return to normal. In order for that to happen, a person requiring treatment must stop drinking.

The challenge in quitting is the fact that it results in alcohol withdrawal. Those in recovery are fully aware of the fact that they are in withdrawal because they experience a defined set of symptoms that go along with it. Those symptoms are rather uncomfortable for most people. Indeed, fear of alcohol withdrawal symptoms is a factor that tends to discourage people from entering alcohol recovery.

You might be wondering how severe withdrawal symptoms are and how long the process lasts. In short, no definitive alcohol withdrawal timeline can be applied to every person across the board. Most people manage to get through medically supervised withdrawal within 7 to 10 days as long as they are undergoing an inpatient detox procedure. Those who choose outpatient detox can be strung along for several weeks.

The 3 Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal

Everyone in alcohol recovery responds to withdrawal differently. What might be challenging for you could be rather easy for someone else, and vice versa. How you will respond depends on a long list of factors including your overall health, the length of time you have been drinking, the existence of any other addictive substances you might use, and whether or not your body responds well to the prescription medications employed in the detox process.

For purposes of general explanation, we can describe the inpatient detox process using the following three-stage alcohol withdrawal timeline:

Stage #1: Early Withdrawal Symptoms

Mild withdrawal symptoms generally begin to set in within 3 to 4 hours of taking your last drink. Some people can go as long as 8 to 12 hours before experiencing these symptoms. These include:

  • feelings of nervousness and anxiety
  • nausea, vomiting, and headaches
  • restlessness, trouble sleeping
  • mild shaking in the hands
  • excessive sweating
  • alcohol cravings.

Some people do not experience all of these symptoms during the early stages of withdrawal. It all depends on how the individual body reacts to having less alcohol in the system.

Stage #2: Peaking of Withdrawal Symptoms

The second stage of alcohol withdrawal is characterised by a gradual intensification of the symptoms listed above. Those who have experienced only a few of the symptoms in stage 1 may progress to exhibiting all of them in stage 2. Withdrawal symptoms can peak anywhere between the 24- and 48-hour mark; they can become very serious for some people.

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On the alcohol withdrawal scale, stage 2 is the most difficult of all. This 24- to 36-hour period of withdrawal tends to determine whether a person succeeds or fails. Those willing to fight through withdrawal symptoms at their most intense are more likely to succeed long-term compared to those who give in and take another drink.

During this second stage, there is a very serious risk of developing a condition known as delirium tremens. This condition can be potentially fatal as a result of cardiac arrest, trauma, or a dangerous response to hallucinations. The good news is that anyone who makes it to the third stage of alcohol withdrawal without experiencing delirium tremens is unlikely to do so.

Stage #3: Subsiding of Withdrawal Symptoms

A person has entered the third stage of alcohol withdrawal at the point that symptoms begin to subside. Physical symptoms such as headaches, vomiting and nausea typically disappear anywhere between day 7 and 10. Almost all of the symptoms will be gone within ten days of having that last drink. Two exceptions may be alcohol cravings and insomnia.

For some individuals, the physical and psychological cravings for alcohol are so strong that they continue for weeks or months afterward. In some rare cases, recovering alcoholics may also experience persistent insomnia long after withdrawal is completed. If you were to exhibit such ongoing symptoms, your doctor could prescribe medications to control them.

Withdrawal in Outpatient Detox

It is important for us to explain why the alcohol withdrawal timeline is generally longer for an outpatient detox programme. The main reason is that the doctors and nurses overseeing outpatient detox do not have the ability to monitor a patient's health 24 hours a day. Therefore, they must go slower and be more deliberate in the treatment they provide. It is still possible to complete outpatient detox in seven days, but most people take a little bit longer.

The risk of outpatient detox, above and beyond the potential for delirium tremens, is one of the recovering alcoholic continuing to drink at the same time he or she is attempting to detox. The adverse effects of this risk are clearly seen in some of the prescription medications that might be used.

As an example, nalmefene is one of the latest and most popular prescription medications for alcohol withdrawal. It is used to control cravings during and after the withdrawal process. However, should a person continue drinking while using nalmefene, two things happen. First, the drug is no longer as effective as it can be during the current withdrawal session. Second, it is likely to be completely ineffective in subsequent quitting attempts. Other drugs used to control cravings are usually ineffective as well. In other words, it is a one-and-done scenario with these anti-craving medications.

There is an experimental form of outpatient detox that utilises heavy doses of vitamins and minerals as a replacement for those lost to alcohol abuse. Detox of this kind is not yet widespread in the UK, but it is gaining ground in North America. It may eventually become something recovering alcoholics here have access to.

We Can Assess Your Situation,

Now that you understand the basics of the alcohol withdrawal timeline for both in- and outpatient detox programmes, what will you do with the information? Any possibility that you might be dealing with an alcohol problem is reason enough to get professional help. You can start the process by contacting us for a free assessment and treatment referral.

We are an independent advice and referral organisation offering our clients the widest range of treatment options in their local areas. Our independence allows us to recommend the most appropriate treatments rather than having to commit to just one or two choices. When you call us, we can provide treatment information from:

  • private rehab clinics
  • independent counsellors
  • alcohol charities
  • alcohol support groups
  • NHS treatment providers.

There are enough options to suit just about any requirement or budget. If you have any questions about cost or payment, do not be afraid to ask when you call. Private clinics typically accept several forms of payment, including private insurance, credit cards, debit cards, and cash.

The last thing we want you to know is that you do not have to wait to get help. Most private clinics and counsellors can start your treatment right away; usually within 24 to 48 hours of contact. Should you decide to seek treatment from the NHS, there may be a waiting time involved. We can get you connected with an alcohol charity or support group in the meantime.

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