How Long Does It Take to Detox From Alcohol?
The Detox Process
Detox is a process in which your body metabolizes the remaining alcohol out of your system. It can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. During the detox process, the body may experience withdrawal from alcohol, where seizures, delirium tremens, and death are the major risks. Due to these risks, medically assisted detox is recommended for people who have been drinking for a long period of time.
Alcohol is one of the most common substances of abuse. Statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use in Household, an annual government data collection for substance use and mental health, show that about 67 million people engaged in binge drinking the last month.1 Prolonged and severe alcohol intake can lead to a number of devastating physical and psychological consequences.2
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Detoxification, or detox, is the first phase of substance abuse recovery. It involves a period of time after your last drink that you dedicate to ridding all of the alcohol or toxins in your body so that you can begin treatment with a clean slate. The primary goal of detox is to safely and comfortably embark upon a period of abstinence at the start of the recovery process. Research shows that completion of medical alcohol detoxification increases the chances of successful treatment.3 Once your body is free of the short-term effects of alcohol, recovery can begin.
Alcohol can be one of the most dangerous substances from which to withdraw. As detox progresses, withdrawal symptoms may become life-threatening, so professional medical monitoring is necessary in many cases of abuse and dependency.While the importance of physically ridding yourself of the effects alcohol is stressed in detoxification, it is also important to evaluate for any of the psychological factors that often accompany severe alcohol dependence, such as depressed mood, anxiety, and mood swings, since research shows that such conditions complicate treatment and make successful treatment less likely.4
Some detox facilities—especially luxury programs that are designed to offer one-on-one care—may assess patients for co-occurring psychiatric conditions during detox so that any mental health issues can be managed properly.
Alcohol detoxification can be uncomfortable until withdrawal symptoms are under control. Withdrawal can be the most difficult part of the treatment process. Patients who have engaged in heavy, prolonged drinking have developed physical dependence on alcohol and rely on it to activate the body’s regulatory functions; alcohol withdrawal prevents the body from engaging these functions on its own.
Alcohol Withdrawal: Physical Symptoms
Patience experience alcohol withdrawal differently. However, most people will experience at least some of the following acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms:2
- Racing heart beat
- Increased blood pressure
- Mood swings
When alcohol is abruptly removed from your system, the body cannot access chemicals which help your central nervous system calm itself after being stressed or excited. Your brain struggles to adjust to the rebounding level of stimulation. Sometimes the brain can’t keep up with all this new excitatory neuronal activity, and this can result in a seizure.3
The risk of experiencing an alcohol-related seizure peaks at 24–48 hours after the last drink and remains high, in some cases, for several days after that.2 Therefore, it is vital to your treatment course that you begin with detox and have all of the alcohol removed from your body first. For many individuals, beginning treatment for alcohol abuse after safely completing detox is the best way to set yourself up to achieve sobriety—that way, the most physically uncomfortable part is over, and you can focus your efforts on recovery.
The severity of a person’s withdrawal during detox is closely related to how severe and long-standing his or her addiction has been to that point.It is important to keep in mind that your experience of detox can differ from what you read here or what you may have observed in other people. Exactly how your detox progresses will be influenced by many factors, so it’s difficult to determine with accuracy what course your detox may take.
However, it is possible to get a general time frame for the detox process, complete with the progression of symptoms.
The First Hours of Alcohol Detox
Cravings are some of the first symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, and a definitive sign that the body is beginning the detox process.
- Cravings can occur within hours of taking a final drink and continue far into the detox process.
The first hours of detox may also involve symptoms such as:2
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Anxiety, restlessness, depression, or irritability.
- Spikes in heart rate and blood pressure.
- Nightmares and insomnia.
- Tremors (quite common for all levels of alcohol addiction).
For patients with more extensive physical dependence on alcohol, symptoms may persist and get progressively worse throughout the withdrawal process.
The First Two Days of Alcohol Detox
After the initial hours of untreated alcohol withdrawal, more severe acute symptoms are possible. In addition to the symptoms described above, new symptoms at this stage can include hallucinations and seizures.
The Rest of the Alcohol Detox Process
Detox can continue for many days after the initial withdrawal symptoms develop. Cravings, restlessness, and anxiety intensify with long stretches of untreated alcohol withdrawal. If present, and not managed closely, seizure activity may increase in severity and frequency.
After the first 48 hours of detox, seizure risk will begin to lessen in many cases. However, continued medical observation may be required, as the risk of extreme confusion and cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke remains elevated.
If a patient experiences these effects, symptoms usually occur within 48 to 96 hours after the last drink. Occasionally, they have a delayed onset, starting between 7 and 10 days after the last drink.2
Delirium tremens (DT) symptoms include:6
- Body tremors.
- Agitation or irritability.
- Fever and sweating.
- Extreme confusion or disorientation.
- Rapid mood changes.
Since DT is a perilous condition with a high death rate, it is usually managed in an inpatient medical hospital’s intensive care unit. Mortality rates in unmanaged cases of delirium tremens are 10-15%.7 Sedating medications, diligent supervision, and supportive care will be important until the health risks subside.
Delirium tremens won’t develop in every recovering alcohol user, but because it is so dangerous you should have a physician or other addiction treatment professional assess your risk in order to best prepare for potential complications. The rapidity of onset and severity of DT symptoms can depend on how much and how often a person drank.
Alcohol detox and withdrawal can be physically and psychologically taxing—health complications, cravings, and mood swings are common. This sounds like scary information, but it’s important to be adequately familiarized with the detox process, especially when you have a severe dependency.
Even if you’d prefer to detox from alcohol at home, finding professional supervision is extremely important. Mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms can be managed on either an inpatient or outpatient basis, as research has shown little difference in outcomes between these settings. If there is a risk for severe symptoms, alcohol withdrawal must be managed in an acute medical setting.8 Alcohol detox and withdrawal carry the risk of extreme health consequences, including hallucinations, seizures, and death. Finding a proper detox program—whether it be conducted on an inpatient or outpatient basis—is paramount to your recovery safety.
There are outpatient recovery programs that allow you to work through recovery from home, but you should consult with your healthcare provider before committing to outpatient detox, as it may not be the most appropriate option if you are at risk for physical withdrawal symptoms or you have other circumstances that could jeopardize your recovery efforts. .
Relatively mild symptoms of withdrawal may be managed at home with appropriate medications and frequent check-ins with a supervising physician. However, it is difficult to predict withdrawal developments and, further, tough to control for all the variables at home. For these and other reasons, undergoing detox at a facility and then working through the rest of treatment from home is a great option for many in early recovery.
Many of the symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal will have largely faded after five days of detox, though some may persist for a week or longer. Any serious symptoms still present at this point will be medically managed at the detox center.
Medically assisted detoxification involves professional health monitoring during the detox phase to ensure your safety throughout the risky alcohol withdrawal effects.
Traditional treatment will offer you supportive therapy that will help prepare you for returning to everyday life and show you how to effectively manage drinking temptations.
Luxury treatment also provides quality substance abuse treatment, but these facilities additionally place focus on privacy and comfort. In a luxury or executive program. You’ll find many amenities—private rooms, internet access, recreational entertainment, and more one-on-one care.
Because alcohol detox, withdrawal, and recovery can initially be such an uncomfortable process, luxury settings are ideal for those in recovery from alcohol addiction. Many opt to undergo treatment in the best luxury residential rehab programs in the country, where they will also receive psychological counseling and support from others in recovery.
That said, traditional treatment programs employ similar therapeutic approaches and can be every bit as beneficial as luxury rehabs are to those in recovery. The number of amenities may be fewer than those at the luxury centers, but the treatment services are frequently offered at a lower cost. Whatever your choice, make sure that you put your health first—both physical and mental—throughout the process.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use in Households.
- Merkx, M.J., Schippers, G.M., Koeter, M.W., De Wildt, W.A., Vedel, E., Goudriaan, A.E., Van Den Brink, W. (2014). Treatment outcome of alcohol use disorder outpatients with or without medically assisted detoxification. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.75(6), 993-8.
- Morrow, L..J., Keenan, C.R., Xiong, G.X. (2009). Chapter 7: Substance Use Disorders—Alcohol. Lippincott’s Primary Care Psychiatry, first edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. (2016). Alcohol withdrawal.
- Rogawski, M. A. (2005). Update on the neurobiology of alcohol withdrawal seizures. Current Review in Basic Science, 5(6), 225-230.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. (2016). Delirium Tremens.
- Costin, B.N., Miles, M.F. 2014. Molecular and neurologic responses to chronic alcohol use. Handbook of Clinical Neurology, Vol 125, 157-171.
- Hasyashida, M., Alderman, A.I., Mclellan, T., O’Brien, C.P., Purtill, J.J., Volpicelli, J.R., Raphaelson, A.H., Hall, C.P. (1989). Comparative effectiveness and costs of inpatient and outpatient detoxification of patients with mild-to-moderate alcohol withdrawal syndrome. New Engl J Med, 320(6), 358–65.