How Long Does Alcohol Detox Take?
Last Updated: November 17, 2023
Although the physical symptoms of alcohol detox usually subside in seven days, the psychological symptoms can last several months or longer.
Although the timeline differs based on the individual, alcohol detox takes about a week and can cause unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can be dangerous, even life-threatening, making it important to know what to expect during alcohol detox.
What Is Alcohol Detox?
Alcohol detox, also called alcohol withdrawal, is the difficult yet important first step of stopping alcohol. When you use alcohol for prolonged periods, your brain balances itself by becoming hyperactive to adjust to the sedating effect of alcohol. While you’re using alcohol, you don’t notice this change. However, your brain becomes unbalanced once the sedating effect of alcohol is removed, causing withdrawal symptoms until it can adjust its hyperactivity and rebalance.
Common Alcohol Detox Symptoms
Alcohol detox symptoms are generally caused by unbalanced hyperactivity in the brain. This results in overactive brain activity that affects the body and mind. Some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Inability to think clearly
- Nausea and vomiting
- Elevated blood pressure
- Clammy, sweaty skin
In severe situations, an uncommon but deadly condition called delirium tremens can occur. This condition causes seizures, hallucinations and a complete disconnection from reality. If untreated, delirium tremens is deadly in over one-third of people who develop it.
Alcohol Detox Timeline
The alcohol detox timeline differs for everyone, depending on how severely alcohol use has affected their brain chemistry. However, this timeline will be somewhat predictable and always includes four distinct phases:
- Initiation: Within 6–12 hours after the last drink, alcohol levels in the blood will decrease enough for symptoms to begin. These will initially be mild withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and headaches.
- Intensification: Over 12–48 hours after the last drink, symptoms will gradually worsen, and new side effects will begin. As withdrawal worsens, detox will become more difficult.
- Peak: Symptoms will reach their most intense levels about 48–72 hours after the last drink. Life-threatening symptoms like seizures or delirium tremens are most likely to occur during this time, and detox will be at its worst.
- Improvement: Once symptoms have peaked, the three to seven days following the last drink will be a period of improvement. Symptoms will subside more gradually than they started but slowly improve, disappearing one by one.
In severe cases, the timeline for detox can last longer; however, by the end of the detox, all the physical symptoms of withdrawal will be gone. Although psychological symptoms, such as mood changes and cravings, may last several months or longer.
Medications Used During Alcohol Detox
Because alcohol detox is so dangerous and uncomfortable, doctors typically prescribe and administer medications to treat the symptoms you will encounter. These medicines include:
- Benzodiazepines: Acting on brain receptors similar to the receptors alcohol affects, these drugs can calm the hyperactivity the brain experiences during withdrawal, improving most detox symptoms.
- Antipsychotics: Antipsychotic medications treat psychiatric symptoms that cause a disconnect from reality, like hallucinations and delusions.
- Antidepressants: Antidepressant medicines treat psychiatric symptoms that affect your mood, such as anxiety and depression.
- Anticonvulsants: Anticonvulsants reduce the risk of seizures caused by alcohol withdrawal. They also can positively affect other withdrawal symptoms due to how they work on the brain.
- Antiemetics: These drugs reduce vomiting and nausea, common side effects of alcohol withdrawal.
- IV Fluids: IV fluids can avoid dehydration that alcohol withdrawal can cause. Medical professionals also often use IV fluids to provide essential vitamins and nutrients that may help with detox symptoms and are often deficient when alcohol is misused.
Factors That May Influence Detox Timeline
Several factors can influence the alcohol detox timeline and the severity of the symptoms you will likely experience during detox. These factors include:
- The duration and severity of alcohol addiction
- How much alcohol you drink daily
- How frequently you drink alcohol
- Your overall health
- The presence of co-occurring mental health conditions
- The use of other drugs or medications
- Your age and gender
- Your genetics
- History of complications during previous detoxes
- Whether you receive medical treatment during detox
Detox Safely Under Medical Supervision
Alcohol detox is the most dangerous form of substance withdrawal you can experience and can be very uncomfortable. Detoxing under medical supervision allows life-threatening complications to be quickly recognized and helps reduce the discomfort that detox often causes. Doctors will almost always recommend detoxing from alcohol with help, not by yourself at home, due to the dangers you face trying to detox alone.
Medical professionals monitor your vital signs during medical detox, administer medications to alleviate symptoms and ensure you are as safe and comfortable as possible. This improves the experience and your chances of completing detox and becoming free from alcohol addiction.
At The Recovery Village Kansas City, we have extensive experience helping people succeed in detoxing from alcohol safely and comfortably. If you or your loved one are struggling with alcohol addiction, we encourage you to contact a Recovery Advocate today and learn more about how we can help you safely detox from alcohol.
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Newman, Richard K.; Stobart Gallagher, Megan A.; & Gomez, Anna E. “Alcohol Withdrawal.” StatPearls. August 29, 2022. Accessed April 6, 2023.
Sachdeva, Ankur; Choudhary, Mona; & Chandra, Mina. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond.” Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research. September 1, 2015. Accessed April 6, 2023.