How long is a typical alcohol detox?

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The duration of alcohol detox varies from one person to another. The reason for this is because people are biochemically different.  

Some people may not experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms until several months or even years after withdrawal. Others may experience alcohol withdrawal immediately after their last drink. 

Detoxification is the process that helps the body get rid of alcohol toxins. Every time a person takes alcohol, the body rids itself of the toxins via the liver. 

However, alcohol dependence alters the body's functioning leading to tolerance. Heavy drinking means that the detoxification process is likely to take longer. 

Different studies offer different answers to the question, 'how long does a typical detox last.' The National Library of Medicine states that a typical detox from alcohol lasts about 6 to 8 hours [1]. 

In the first 6-8 hours, after the patient has taken their last drink. They will begin to experience a couple of physical and emotional alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headaches, mood swings, appetite loss, depression, and anxiety. 

In the next 12 to 48 hours, the patient experiences moderate symptoms. These symptoms are more disturbing and include heightened anxiety, hypersensitive reflexes, mood swings, high blood pressure, sweating, confusion, irritability, fever, and so on. 

48 to 72 hours. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms peak at around 72 hours. At this point, the patient experiences severe symptoms such as hallucinations (visual, auditory, tactile hallucinations), uncontrollable negative thoughts, seizures, and in some patients, delirium tremens (DT).  

The DTs are the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal. Although the prevalence of DT is nearly 2%, patients with severe alcohol dependence must be closely monitored by medical professionals [2]. 

How long should an alcohol detox be? 

The length of alcohol detox varies from one person to another. It is influenced by several factors such as health, levels of alcohol consumption, plus how long one has been dependent on alcohol.  

Almost everyone who decides to go for detox will experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Generally, the symptoms peak during the first. 

Some studies report not all people at risk of developing withdrawal symptoms experience them. One of them is the study by Evan Wood, Loai Albarqouni, plus other researchers [3].  

However, for those that do develop withdrawal symptoms, such symptoms can affect the duration of the detox process. 

how long is a typical alcohol detox

Factors that affect the duration of alcohol detox 

Several factors determine the length of alcohol detox. The first factor is how much the person has been drinking before they decided to suddenly stop drinking.  

The Substance Abuse of Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines heavy alcohol use as consuming more than four drinks daily (for men), that's 14 drinks a week.  

For women, heavy drinking is more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 5 on more days than one [3]. Habits such as binge drinking, and heavy alcohol use increase one's risk of developing alcohol abuse disorder (AUD). 

The second factor is cessation. Patients who abruptly stop drinking will experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

These symptoms manifest differently in each person because of physiological and psychological differences.  

Other factors that influence the detoxification process are mental status, age, genetics. The intensity of the withdrawal symptoms will likely subside over time. Genetics also plays a role in the duration of detox and withdrawal. 

If you don't experience severe withdrawal symptoms and don't develop complications, the detox process is expected to last five to seven days. This timeline is for those who are moderate drinkers.  

For severe drinkers, the detox process may last for up to two weeks or more [4]. Generally, the more severe the substance abuse disorder, the longer the detox from alcohol. 

Some of the people are risk of going for detox for a longer time are: 

  • People who use multiple addictive substances 
  • People who are of older age 
  • People who have co-occurring disorders 
  • People who drink excessive amounts of alcohol 
  • People who have severe alcohol use disorder 
  • People with a poor liver function 

The alcohol detox timeline 

As mentioned earlier, detox generally lasts for about five to seven days. You experience withdrawal symptoms the minute you take your last drink.

Similar to the National Library of Medicine, the CIWA scale outlines the alcohol withdrawal timeline as follows [5]: 

Phase 1: Happens 6 to 12 hours after you stop drinking. 

Phase 2 and 3 can occur 24 to 72 hours during withdrawal. 

Phase 4 can last between the second and third day and persist up to the seventh day since your last drink. Alcohol abuse affects everyone uniquely. However, in the first phase of detox, most people have difficulty sleeping. The symptoms worsen after 12 hours. 

The loss of appetite happens during phase 2. This symptom is common among people who didn't have a healthy diet beforehand.

The reason behind phase 2 symptoms such as loss of appetite, hallucinations, dehydration is because the brain heightens dopamine levels. 

During the 24 to 48 hours, the patient experiences life threatening symptoms.

A person experiences a continuation of phase 2 symptoms along with other, more severe symptoms. Intense mood swings also occur during this phase combined with low blood sugar levels. 

Seizures can occur independently at phase 2 but are not necessarily a sign of Delirium tremens. 

Symptoms start to ease after 48 hours. But there are cases where some symptoms persist. 

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What happens to your body when you stop drinking? 

When you stop drinking, you are likely to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal symptoms are because the brain functioning attempts to regain its balance.  

Although we do not yet completely understand the pathophysiology of alcohol withdrawal, it is known that this substance primarily affects the central nervous system (CNS). 

Alcohol facilitates the actions of the GABA neurotransmitter, which is a major inhibitory transmitter in the brain. Alcohol suppresses the GABA receptor and glutamate, which is a major excitatory neurotransmitter.  

Chronic, heavy drinking results in the brain's GABA and glutamate receptors adapting to compensate for the effects of alcohol. Over time, alcohol abuse significantly harms a person's mental health.  

It leads to issues such as deteriorating cognitive and memory. Severe brain lesions may happen after years of heavy drinking. 

Aside from the brain, alcohol also harms other parts of the body. Most people realize that alcohol consumed damages negatively affects the liver.  

This organ is mainly responsible for breaking down alcohol into tiny by-products that can be eliminated from the body. However, alcohol addiction damages the liver cells and can lead to cirrhosis and fatty liver disease.  

Liver cirrhosis is irreversible. But fatty liver is reversible. If a person stops drinking for at least two weeks, the liver returns to normal. Another liver disease associated with alcohol is alcoholic hepatitis.  

This disease can either be mild or severe, depending on how long you've been drinking. Mild hepatitis is reversible. But severe alcoholic hepatitis is life-threatening and cannot be reversed. [6]. 

Alcohol also affects the cardiovascular system. At the time of drinking, it can cause a temporary increase in heart rate and high blood pressure. Long-term alcohol addiction leads to weakened heart muscles, irregular heartbeat, and high blood pressure. 

Alcohol harms other parts such as the pancreas and the immune system. Therefore, when you stop drinking, your body responds by restoring its equilibrium before the alcohol intake.

What you end up with is a healthy heart, liver, digestive system, and a fully functioning brain. 

You might lose weight when you quit drinking. A serving of wine has about 120 calories, whereas a serving of beer has 150 calories.

When you quit drinking, you get cravings for unhealthy foods, particularly sugary foods. However, if you overcome this temptation, your weight will decline. 

When you go for about one month without alcohol, you'll notice changes such as: 

  • No more sleep disturbances 
  • You become more hydrated 
  • Your digestive system normalizes 

It is essential to realize that a healthy diet has a role to play in the recovery process. When you stop drinking and change your diet, your body will bounce back, and you'll feel happier and healthier. 

How long do withdrawal symptoms last? 

How long withdrawal symptoms last depends on the person. It depends on the type of substance abuse and the frequency of use. The withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable and can be extremely dangerous. 

The symptoms range from mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Some of the alcohol detox symptoms or alcohol detox withdrawal symptoms include: 

  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Tremors 
  • Increased heart rate 
  • Sweating 
  • Irritability 
  • Confusion 
  • Nightmares 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Insomnia 
  • Panic attacks 
  • Stomach upset 

The symptoms may appear at any time, from a few hours after your last drink to a few days. Those experiencing withdrawal symptoms should expect to see a decline in the symptoms in about five to seven days on average. 

What is medical detox? 

Medical detox is a process in which the person goes for detox at a medical facility. This process may or may not include the use of medication. Some facilities use the term "medical" to refer to your stay in a clinical setting. 

There are treatment options in medical detox.  

They include: 

Outpatient treatment:Some facilities offer outpatient detox. However, this is risky as the patient does not reside in the facility. The patient visits the treatment facility during the day and goes home at night.  

A team of medical professionals will provide medical advice and create a personalized plan that meets each client's specific needs. This treatment approach works best for those with a stable home environment. 

If the person is dependent on alcohol, they will be provided with benzodiazepines or opioids to help them manage the symptoms of alcohol. Medications are also prescribed to reduce alcohol cravings.  

There are cases where the medications are used to fight specific symptoms, such as over-the-counter painkillers to ease aches and pains. 

Inpatient treatment: Alcohol withdrawal treatment at an inpatient facility offers a person the medical assistance and supervision needed to safely go through alcohol withdrawal.  

This option is the safest way to go through detox as you get to reside in a safe environment.

When you experience withdrawal symptoms, you'll have a medical professional monitor you to help protect you from experiencing any potentially life-threatening symptoms. 

Enrolling into an alcohol rehab will help you better manage alcohol withdrawal syndrome. This symptom occurs when you suddenly stop drinking.

You also get to engage in other addiction treatment services such as counselling and peer support. 

Conclusion 

Substance abuse treatment, including alcohol addiction treatment requires the individual to go for detox. This process is an essential phase in the recovery process.

It is also the most challenging phase as the body tries to get rid of the toxins from alcohol abuse. A person can experience severe alcohol withdrawal. 

Symptoms such as withdrawal delirium, shakiness, nausea, panic attacks, sleep disturbances, and anxiety can lead the person to relapse.

People with mild symptoms can detox from home. Still, it is important to seek medical advice before attempting 'cold turkey.' 

Medical detox at an alcohol rehab or medical facility increases your chance for successfully completing detox. Your treatment provider may offer you medications to reduce withdrawal symptoms.  

Once the detox ends, you begin the next phase of recovery. You get to work with members from support groups, plus addiction counsellors.

You will undergo therapy to help you developing coping strategies that will help you overcome the alcohol cravings. 

There are numerous studies that show seeking treatment at a rehab facility increases your chances for long term recovery.

Therefore, if you are looking for medical detox, you get check out the national institute of Alcohol abuse and alcoholism to find the right treatment near you and for you.  

You can also check addiction treatment websites such as UK Rehab, Addiction Change, or consult your GP for guidance on the best place for you to get medical detox. 

You can still opt for home detox. But be sure to ask for guidance on the same from a medical professional to find out whether that is the best option for you depending on your needs. 

Abbeycare Pricing Bot

Last Updated: October 27, 2021

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Peter has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. Find Peter on Respiratory Academy, Aston University graduates, University of Birmingham, Q, Pharmaceutical Journal, the Dudley Pharmaceutical Committee, Dudley Council, Twitter, and LinkedIn.