How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

While alcohol withdrawal is a necessary yet often unpleasant phase of addiction recovery, many people find comfort in the knowledge that the process is temporary and will pass over time.

The timeline for alcohol withdrawal is different for everyone and can vary based on a number of factors including your past history of withdrawal, your general health and the amount of alcohol consumed on a regular basis.

In most cases, you will notice the first symptoms beginning to occur around 6-8 hours after your last drink, and this will increase and peak within 48-72 hours depending on the severity of your addiction.

What is alcohol withdrawal?

Alcohol has a sedative effect on the body and brain, and as a result, they have to work harder and stay in a hyper-alert state in order to function with the constant presence of alcohol in the system. When the alcohol is taken away, they remain in this hyper-alert state which is what causes the symptoms.

Over time, the body and brain will relearn how to function without alcohol and the chemical imbalance will stabilise. [1]

As alcohol has a sedative effect on the body and brain, these systems are forced to work harder and remain in a hyper-alert state in order to continue to function alongside the constant presence of alcohol.

When the amount of alcohol is suddenly reduced or entirely removed, the body and brain will remain in this hyper-alert state causing a number of physical and psychological symptoms to occur.

Over time, these systems will relearn how to function without alcohol and the chemical imbalance will eventually stabilise.

What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?

Everyone experiences the alcohol withdrawal process differently, and the severity of your symptoms can depend on a number of factors including the frequency and amount of alcohol consumed, any previous history of withdrawal symptoms and your general health and wellbeing.

Many people will notice one or more of the most common symptoms, but a handful of individuals may experience more severe side effects known as delirium tremens which can be potentially life-threatening.

As a result, it is important to understand what to look out for if you or someone you know is attempting to withdraw from alcohol as part of the recovery process. [2]

Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Excessive perspiration
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Mild tremors
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Slight confusion
  • Pins and needles
  • Itchiness and skin irritation
  • Clammy skin
  • Insomnia and nightmares
  • Lack of appetite
  • Difficulty tolerating bright lights and loud noises
  • Intense cravings for alcohol
  • Increased heart rate

Severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Hallucinations (seeing, hearing or feeling things that aren’t there)
  • Extreme paranoia
  • High blood pressure
  • Delusions
  • Agitation
  • High fever
  • Extreme tremors
  • Debilitating and noticeable confusion
  • Seizures

Even the mildest withdrawal symptoms can become dangerous very quickly, so it’s important to seek medical assistance if you believe that you or someone else is experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms.

For this reason, it is recommended that anyone attempting to withdraw from alcohol should do so under the care of experienced medical professionals, ideally within a rehabilitation centre.

It is possible to withdraw from alcohol at home, but this requires medical approval and should be assessed on a case-by-case basis

How long does alcohol withdrawal last?

It is difficult to correctly predict the timeline of alcohol withdrawal as each person will experience the process differently. In the majority of cases, symptoms will begin to occur between 6-8 hours after the individual’s last drink and continue for up to 72 hours.

Alcohol withdrawal can be categorised into three stages, with symptoms beginning during the first stage and peaking between the second and third.

Most people will complete the physical detoxification process within 72 hours, however, in some cases, the psychological symptoms may remain for some time.

Stage 1 (6-12 hours)

Many people begin to experience withdrawal symptoms within six hours of their last drink. While these symptoms are usually fairly minor and include excessive perspiration and clamminess, people with a severe case of alcoholism are at risk of suffering a seizure during this time.

Stage 2 (12-48 hours)

The symptoms may begin to worsen during this stage and may include hallucinations, nausea, restlessness and difficulty sleeping. The risk of seizure is still high and patients should be monitored 24/7 within a rehabilitation centre to reduce the risk of life-threatening complications.

Stage 3 (48-72 hours)

If the individual is experiencing mild withdrawal, their symptoms should begin to dissipate. However, if the addiction and resulting withdrawal are more severe, symptoms will peak during this time and may develop into delirium tremens.

These may include severe headaches, noticeable tremors, flu-like symptoms and a high fever.

After 72 hours, most people will find that they have passed through the alcohol withdrawal process and are now ready to continue with the remainder of the recovery process.

However some people find that they continue to suffer from psychological symptoms for weeks or even months after detoxification, and this is known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).

What is post-acute withdrawal syndrome?

Post-acute withdrawal syndrome, commonly known as PAWS, refers to the psychological and emotional effects of alcohol withdrawal that linger after the process of detoxification is complete.

These symptoms tend to present in bursts that appear sporadically for between one and two years, and occur as the brain attempts to rebalance and learn to function again without the presence of alcohol.

These symptoms include intense cravings for alcohol and feelings of depression and anxiety, which can lead to a risk of relapse if not properly managed. [3]

Common symptoms of post-acute withdrawal syndrome include:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Aggressive thoughts or behaviour
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Memory loss
  • Being prone to stress

It’s important to be patient with yourself throughout this phase and trust in the process of recovery, and practising self-care while avoiding as many triggers as possible can be helpful during this time.

Thankfully PAWS symptoms will reduce as more time passes without the consumption of alcohol, as the chemical balance of the brain begins to restabilise and fewer fluctuations occur.

Is alcohol withdrawal dangerous?

While the alcohol withdrawal process is a necessary stage of recovery, it can be dangerous and even potentially life-threatening if not properly managed.

After months or even years of excessive alcohol consumption, the body will adapt and find new ways to function despite the levels of alcohol in the system.

It does this by entering a hyper-alert state, in which normal body functions are accelerated to balance out the sedative effects of the alcohol.

When this substance is suddenly removed, the body must immediately rebalance which can cause fatal heart arrhythmias or other organ failures.

Seizures are one of the most severe withdrawal symptoms and may cause the affected person to regurgitate food and eventually choke, or hit their head on a hard surface resulting in brain swelling or other internal injuries.

Alcohol withdrawal deaths are less common than those that occur when withdrawing from other addictive substances such as opiates, but the potential dangers of this process are present in all cases of alcohol addiction.

Therefore it is recommended that anyone attempting to withdraw from alcohol should seek medical assistance in the form of a specialised rehabilitation centre or treatment programme, even in cases of mild addiction or dependency.

What happens after alcohol withdrawal?

The process of detoxification via alcohol withdrawal is an important first step, but the chances of long-term recovery are drastically increased when this stage is followed by psychological treatment in the form of counselling. [4]

Alcohol withdrawal is an effective method when used to treat the physical symptoms of addiction, but the past experiences and mindset of the individual must also be addressed in order to understand and treat the psychological reasons behind the dependency.

Common factors involved in developing an addiction include:

  • A family history of addiction
  • Past experiences and trauma
  • Low self-esteem
  • Childhood environment

For this reason, it is recommended that individuals begin a course of therapy treatments after successfully completing the alcohol withdrawal process.

With the guidance and support of a trained therapist, patients will examine the factors involved in the root cause of the addiction while addressing and working through any trauma or self-destructive mindsets.

They will also learn coping strategies for avoiding triggers along with healthy ways of dealing with stress and negative emotions, which can help to avoid future relapses.

The safest and most effective way to undergo detoxification and subsequent psychological treatment for alcohol addiction is to seek out a specialised rehabilitation centre or treatment programme.

We are on hand to help you through the process of selecting an appropriate facility that meets your needs – contact us today and let us apply our experience and resources to find a treatment centre that suits your personal budget and lifestyle.