Stages of Alcohol Detox: A Timeline of What Happens to Your Body

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that 29.5 million people have alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the United States. Yet, only about 7.6% of people with AUD receive treatment for their alcohol addiction.

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol has a severe negative impact on a person’s health. Approximately 50% of deaths from liver disease involve alcohol. In addition, people who abuse or misuse alcohol are at an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, stomach bleeding, depression, and several types of cancers. Alcoholism also increases the risk of unsafe sexual behavior, motor vehicle accidents, drowning, and injuries from falls and violence.

Despite these known risks, people who are physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol struggle to break free of their addiction. Even a casual drinker can tell you that the withdrawal symptoms from alcohol after just a few drinks can be very uncomfortable. Those who have been drinking heavily or drinking for a long time can experience life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. For this reason, it’s important to undergo a medically managed alcohol detoxification at a professional alcohol addiction treatment center. This allows your body to withdraw from alcohol and stop alcohol use entirely gradually and safely.

But what happens to your body during an alcohol detox? The fear of what will happen during the different stages of alcohol detox is one of the main reasons that prevents people from seeking treatment for alcohol use disorder. Please continue reading to learn more about alcohol detoxification. Knowing what to expect can help you or a loved one who is struggling with alcohol addiction be better prepared and less overwhelmed with the alcohol detox process.

What is alcohol addiction?

Alcohol addiction is also called alcoholism, alcohol abuse or misuse, alcohol dependence, or alcohol use disorder (AUD). It is a particularly dangerous condition because, unlike illegal street drugs or prescription drugs, alcohol is legal, easily available, and socially acceptable. This makes it harder for people to realize that their drinking patterns are problematic. Yet, alcohol is highly addictive and can cause severe health problems.

So, how can you tell if you have alcohol use disorder (AUD)? AUD is defined as a pattern of drinking where you have trouble controlling how much and how often you drink, you become preoccupied with drinking, and you continue drinking even when alcohol starts causing problems.
People with AUD find that, over time, they need more alcohol to get the same effects (this is called tolerance). They experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to decrease alcohol consumption or stop drinking altogether.

For how long does alcohol stay in blood?

Alcohol can be detected in blood for up to 12 hours after the last drink. It can also stay on your breath for 12-24 hours, in saliva for 12 hours, in your urine for 12-72 hours, and in your hair for up to 90 days.

How to ween off alcohol?

It’s important to get professional support if you are trying to cut down on your drinking. Medical supervision during an alcohol detox can help to keep you comfortable and safe.
If you are dependent on alcohol and are unable to attend a professional alcohol detox program, don’t stop drinking suddenly at home. Instead, gradually reduce the amount you drink every day over a period of several weeks. A good rule of thumb is to reduce your drinking by about 10% every couple of days. So, if you drink 10 beers a day, reduce it to 9 beers on day 2 of your alcohol detox and so on. You can also try switching to lower strength drinks instead of stronger ones.

If you experience withdrawal symptoms, it means you are weening off alcohol too fast and you should slow down. It may help to keep a drinking diary to track how many units of alcohol you consume and when. Make sure a loved one knows you are detoxing from alcohol so that they can check on you. Also ensure you have access to emergency medical care during your alcohol detoxification

How to overcome alcohol cravings?

When you are changing your drinking behaviors, it is common to have cravings or urges to drink alcohol. This includes both psychological (emotional) triggers that tempt you to drink as well as physical sensations that make you want to drink.

Fortunately, alcohol cravings are short-lived and get less severe over time. You can train your mind to recognize, avoid, and cope with these urges. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective ways to learn this technique and other coping skills, such as making plans for handling alcohol cravings and identifying triggers. Other ways to stop alcohol cravings include:

  • Avoid tempting situations, such as hanging out with friends at a bar.
  • Distract yourself by calling a loved one when you have the urge to drink.
  • Remind yourself why you need to stop drinking by reading a list or listening to a recorded message.
  • Ride out the craving by accepting it as a temporary feeling.

When should you seek help to overcome alcohol addiction?

You should seek help to overcome alcohol addiction if:

  • You can’t control your need to drink.
  • You are preoccupied with alcohol (you’re either drinking or thinking about drinking).
  • Other people have warned you that your drinking is out of control.
  • Your drinking is causing health problems.
  • Your grades at school or your work performance has dropped because of your drinking.
  • You’ve got into trouble because of your drinking.

What is alcohol detox?

Alcohol detox is the first step in treating alcohol use disorder (AUD). Many people are apprehensive about quitting alcohol due to the fear of withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms are symptoms that occur when a person who is physically dependent on alcohol reduces or stops drinking. They develop because of changes in the levels of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. The brain, which has become accustomed to alcohol, is unable to cope when alcohol is suddenly withdrawn, resulting in a range of physical and psychological symptoms. During a medically-supervised alcohol detox, a multidisciplinary healthcare team keeps you as comfortable as possible by managing your withdrawal symptoms. The team also manages any medical complications that arise during alcohol withdrawal.

What are the common alcohol withdrawal symptoms from alcohol detox?

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

Mild symptoms

Headache, insomnia, anxiety, shakiness, fatigue, stomach upset, and mood changes.

Severe symptoms

Heart palpitations, increased blood pressure, fast heart rate, hyperthermia (elevated body temperature), rapid breathing, sweating, hallucinations, and seizures.

What makes alcohol withdrawal challenging?

Alcohol withdrawal is challenging because the symptoms can develop rapidly and suddenly. The withdrawal symptoms can also escalate in severity rather quickly and aggressively. Suddenly quitting alcohol can result in hallucinations, seizures, heart failure, and even death. People who develop a life-threatening form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens (DTs) may need admission to an intensive care unit due to a risk of death.

For this reason, it’s important to undergo alcohol detox under the care of medical professionals in an alcohol addiction treatment center. Healthcare providers can treat withdrawal symptoms to keep you comfortable, keep an eye on vital organs by ordering laboratory tests, and manage any health complications that arise, giving you the best chance to safely detox from alcohol. For instance, if you have hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), your healthcare team can give you intravenous glucose; if you develop seizures, they can control them with benzodiazepines; if you have a vitamin deficiency, they can prescribe a supplement.

Do I need to detox at an alcohol addiction treatment center?

It can be tempting to try and quit alcohol at home without professional help. However, as mentioned, sometimes people progress to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms very quickly. Without care from healthcare professionals, this can put your life at risk.

Also, withdrawal symptoms are relieved immediately by consuming additional alcohol. This puts you at a significant risk of relapse when you try to quit drinking at home without professional help.

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What factors affect the severity of withdrawal symptoms?

Prior drinking habits

The severity of the withdrawal response after discontinuing alcohol depends on the duration of alcohol use and the quantity of alcohol consumed. People who have consumed alcohol for 1 to 3 months or drunk large quantities of alcohol for 7-10 days typically experience withdrawal symptoms lasting for 6-24 hours after they stop drinking. Those with a longer history of alcohol consumption or heavier drinking may experience more severe withdrawal symptoms lasting for 2 weeks or longer.

History of substance abuse

People who use other illegal drugs in addition to alcohol typically experience more severe withdrawal symptoms. The detoxification process in such individuals can be complicated, requiring specialized medical care.

Co-occurring disorders

Many people with substance use disorders, including alcohol dependence, have co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health conditions. The presence of co-occurring disorders can make alcohol detox more severe, complicated, and prolonged. Treatment centers that specialize in dual diagnosis are best equipped to handle such patients.

What are the different alcohol withdrawal stages?

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can last anywhere from 6 hours to 2 weeks or longer after starting alcohol detox. Here is what typically happens to your body during the various stages of alcohol withdrawal after your last drink:

Stage one: 6-12 hours after alcohol withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms are usually mild in the first few hours after your last drink. They may include headache, mild anxiety, insomnia, mild shakiness or tremors, and an upset stomach.

Stage two: 12-24 hours after alcohol withdrawal

During this stage of alcohol detox, withdrawal symptoms become more severe. They can include hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that don’t exist) and mood changes.

Stage three: 24-48 hours after alcohol withdrawal

Some alcohol withdrawal symptoms begin to resolve after peaking while others continue and can linger for 1-2 weeks. The risk of seizures is highest 24-48 hours into an alcohol detox. Other symptoms in stage 3 of alcohol withdrawal can include confusion, agitation, and hallucinations.

Stage four: 48-72+ hours after alcohol withdrawal (Delirium Tremens)

People who are heavy alcohol users and quit cold turkey (stop drinking abruptly) can develop a severe life-threatening form of alcohol withdrawal syndrome called delirium tremens or DTs. This is relatively rare and occurs in 5-10% of alcohol-dependent people. However, without treatment, the death rate from delirium tremens can be up to 15%.

DTs typically develops 2-3 days after a person stops drinking. Symptoms of delirium tremens include fever, dehydration, sweating, nausea, vomiting, pale skin, severe tremors (shaking), chest pain, increased blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, extreme sleepiness, loss of consciousness, sensitivity to light and sound, hallucinations, seizures, confusion, nightmares, excitability, and hyperactivity.

Risk factors for delirium tremens include moderate to heavy drinking, quitting alcohol suddenly, long-term alcohol addiction for 10+ years, male gender, age over 30 years, a medical history of seizures, prior alcohol withdrawal attempts, other substance use disorders, and other medical conditions such as liver disease or heart disease.
This is a life-threatening complication of alcohol detox. People who develop DTs need specialized care, maybe even in an intensive care unit.

Post-acute withdrawal

Most people experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome lasting for a few days to a couple of weeks after their last drink. However, sometimes, quitting alcohol can lead to protracted symptoms called post-acute withdrawal syndrome or PAWS, which can last for several months or even years. This is believed to occur due to changes in the central nervous system on a molecular and cellular level that affects emotions and behaviors long after the physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal have ended. Our understanding of PAWS remains scant, but people with PAWS often experience sleep problems, mood changes (anger, hostility, irritability), depression, fatigue, problems with thinking and concentrating, decreased sex drive, and physical pain for 1-3 years after they stop alcohol consumption.

Frequently asked questions

How long does it take for alcohol to get out of your liver?

It can take your liver one week or longer to completely detox from alcohol after your last drink. The human liver can process 1 ounce of alcohol every hour.

What is the third stage of alcohol withdrawal typically characterized by?

The third stage of alcohol withdrawal is typically characterized by fever, confusion, agitation, hallucinations, and seizures. However, every person is different and the severity of the withdrawal symptoms can vary from person to person depending on the extent of alcohol use and the person’s underlying health status.

Does everyone experience the 4 stages of alcohol withdrawal syndrome?

No, everyone may not experience the four stages of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. The severity of alcohol withdrawal depends on the several factors, including the duration and extent of alcohol consumption. People who are heavy drinkers or have been drinking for years are more likely to experience all four stages of alcohol withdrawal syndrome and more severe withdrawal symptoms.

Does private health cover inpatient treatment for addiction and rehab?

Many private health insurance plans cover all or some of the cost of inpatient treatment for addiction and rehab. The Affordable Care Act requires private and public insurance plans to cover 10 essential health benefits, one of which is substance use disorders. However, the exact coverage will depend on your specific insurance plan. You may be responsible for part of the costs of your alcohol addiction treatment, depending on your deductible, copay, and coinsurance.

What can be expected during the acute phase of alcohol detoxification?

You can expect to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms during the acute phase of alcohol detoxification. These symptoms can range from mild symptoms such as headache and anxiety to more serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, hallucinations, and seizures.

How long does the acute phase of alcohol detox typically last?

The acute phase of alcohol detox can last anywhere from 6 hours to 2 weeks.

How can I support a family member going through alcohol detox?

You can support a loved one going through alcohol detox by educating yourself about alcohol withdrawal symptoms, accompanying them to family therapy appointments, supporting their recovery by removing alcohol from the home, and remaining patient and positive throughout the process.

Wrapping up

Being fearful about the stages of detoxing from alcohol is one of the key reasons why people don’t seek the help they need. Understanding the importance of medically supervised alcohol treatment and knowing the stages of alcohol detox can help people take this important first step towards a sober future.

If you are worried about yourself or a loved one, Discover Recovery Treatment Center in Washington offers individualized alcohol detox programs. We provide evidence-based medical care and emotional support through all the stages of detox from alcohol. The foundation of our luxury rehabilitation center is a holistic approach where we treat the person as a whole and not just their alcohol addiction. Our inpatient residential program, which begins when you have gone through all the stages of alcohol detox, includes counseling and therapy, nutrition, and other evidence-based practices to heal your mind, body, and soul. Call us today to find out how we can help you overcome your alcohol addiction and hold your hand every step of the way as you detox from alcohol.

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