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How Long Does It Take to Detox From Alcohol?

You don’t have to be an alcoholic to experience some withdrawal symptoms after heavy drinking. After a single episode of binge drinking or heavy drinking, you’re bound to experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches and nausea. However, for alcoholics, the time it takes to detox varies on several factors. Read on to learn more about how long it takes to detox from alcohol and what to expect.

Alcohol Detox Timeline

Alcohol detox depends on various factors, such as how much people drink and for how long. On average, most people will experience symptoms eight hours after having the last drink. But, everyone is different, and it makes someone else take longer to notice symptoms. 

The First 6 Hours

At this stage, withdrawal symptoms are very similar to those of a hangover. Usually, most alcohol abusers will experience headaches, nausea, and some light vomiting. However, for someone with a long history of heavy drinking, they could experience a seizure in the first six hours after the last drink.

12 to 24 Hours

At this point, a small percentage of people experience hallucinations. It’s common for them to stay. They hear or see things that aren’t there. While scary, most doctors don’t consider this a serious medical complication. 

The Following 24 to 48 Hours

Here’s when the real detox begins. Minor symptoms like headaches, tremors, and stomach upset, continue at this time. Most people will reach a peak of symptoms around 18 to 24 hours. After this, symptoms will start to decrease after four to five days.

48 to 72 Hours

At this point, people are likely to experience a severe form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens (TD) or alcohol withdrawal delirium. When someone experiences this, they report a high heart rate and body temperature and an increased risk of seizures. Other symptoms at this stage include anxiety, chest pain, confusion, restlessness, sensitivity to light, and sudden mood changes.

The Final 72 Hours

If someone is still experiencing withdrawal symptoms at this point, they’re probably feeling their worst. In rare cases, these moderate symptoms can extend for a month. While on and off, people experience rapid heart rate, illusions, and fatigue. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which causes feelings of relaxation and euphoria. As our bodies maintain this balance, it signals the brain to make more neurotransmitters to excite and stimulate the central nervous system.

When someone stops drinking, their nervous system becomes overactive, which causes symptoms like:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Rapid heart rate

While those symptoms might be uncomfortable, as people withdraw from alcohol, they can experience severe symptoms such as:

  • Hallucinations
  • Illusions
  • Paranoia
  • Seizures 

How Bad Is It?

It’s known that around 50 percent of people with alcohol use disorder experience symptoms of alcohol withdrawal during detox. Of those, about 3 to 5 percent will struggle with severe symptoms. Multiple factors will affect the severity of your symptoms, and for how long will you experience them. Some risk factors of severe withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Abnormal liver function
  • History of seizures
  • Low platelet, potassium, and sodium levels
  • Preexisting dehydration
  • Presence of brain lesions
  • Use of other drugs

Protracted Alcohol Withdrawal

Similar to delirium tremens, some people will suffer from protracted alcohol withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). When this happens, people are likely to experience these symptoms for up to a year. Anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, and tremors are likely to extend for months. Others experience decreased energy, fatigue, and mental weariness. The problem with PAWS is that these uncomfortable feelings make the recovery process more difficult and increases someone’s risk of relapse. 

Why Alcohol Medical Detox Is Important

It’s not uncommon to hear about someone who wants to quit alcohol cold-turkey or try to stop alcohol on their own. However, alcohol detox is more than uncomfortable. It has the potential to be quite dangerous. Complications of alcohol withdrawal include respiratory depression, pneumonitis, heart arrhythmias, and seizures. Estimates say between 5 to 15 percent of people with Delirium Tremens die.

Not only can a medical detox reduce the duration of withdrawal, but it can also minimize the potential side effects and reduce the risk of significant complications. Alcohol detox is often the first step in the long road to recovery. When people attempt to detox by themselves, they’re likely to relapse repeatedly as they don’t have the right structure to move towards abstinence.

Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease that affects how our brain functions. Someone with alcohol use disorder can’t make the right decisions as they’re often not in control of their actions. This is why it’s paramount to receive help from the right medical professionals.

What to Expect from the Medical Detox Process

Not everyone will need medications during their medical detox. Even still, they’ll be able to receive the right medical treatment in case they experience severe symptoms. Doctors at medical detoxes can also monitor your vital signs and make sure you’re hydrated, stable, and on your road to recovery.

In the given case that you experience moderate to severe symptoms, your medical detox will likely include medication-assisted treatment (MAT) that includes:

  • Benzodiazepines: Although addictive, benzodiazepines can help reduce the likelihood of seizures. When administered under medical supervision, the risk of benzodiazepine addiction significantly goes down.
  • Neuroleptic medications: These medications help depress nervous system activity to calm down the withdrawal symptoms. They might also help reduce seizures and agitation. 
  • Nutritional support: Alcohol use causes various nutrient deficiencies that can cause adverse symptoms. It’s common for doctors to administer folic acid, magnesium, and thiamine to help with these symptoms. 

Once someone reaches the peak of their withdrawal symptoms, doctors are likely to continue a medication-assisted treatment to reduce the likelihood of relapse. Common medications include disulfiram (Antabuse), naltrexone (ReVia), and topiramate (Topamax). These medications help reduce alcohol cravings to prevent relapse. 

Of course, these medications are only effective when paired with cognitive-behavioral therapy, support groups, and other therapies that help treat addiction and promote long-term sobriety.

Finding Help for Alcohol Abuse

If you or someone you know struggles with alcohol use disorder, don’t wait any longer. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, our evidence-based treatment programs can help you leave your alcohol addiction in the past as you walk towards your long-term recovery. We believe in comprehensive and holistic treatment plans that adapt to your unique needs. From individual therapy, support groups, and aftercare prevention programs, our alcohol addiction treatment will help you beat this horrendous disease once and for all.

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