How Long Does Alcohol Detox Take to Complete?
There are 15.1 million adults in the U.S. who suffer from alcohol use disorder. Yet, only 6.7% of these individuals receive treatment to become sober and healthier. Alcohol addiction can cloud your judgment, trigger a slew of serious long-term health problems, and interfere with your lifestyle in ways that compromise your job, relationships, education, and your overall well-being.
But no matter how long you’ve been struggling with alcohol use disorder, or how bad you think your drinking has become, getting help in the form of addiction treatment can greatly improve your life in countless ways. Getting sober can improve your health and physical appearance, allow you to make amends with those you may have hurt, and give you a more positive outlook on your life and future. But before you jump right into therapy and 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, it’s important that you go through alcohol detox to overcome physical dependence on alcohol.
At first glance, alcohol detox can seem like a tremendously scary feat. Non-stop bouts of vomiting, tremors, diarrhea, and other withdrawal symptoms can be enough to deter anyone from getting the help they need to become sober. But in reality, alcohol detox is completely manageable and safe and can be made comfortable for nearly any patient — including those who have been drinking heavily for many years.
How long does it take to detox from alcohol, and how exactly does an alcohol detox actually work?
Here’s everything you need to know about how to detox from alcohol, and what you can expect from a treatment center once you’ve made the decision to become healthier and sober.
How to Detox from Alcohol
Alcohol detox is the first stage of any alcohol addiction treatment and helps you overcome physical dependence on alcohol. When a person drinks alcohol regularly, their body becomes tolerant to the amounts they normally consume. A person who becomes tolerant to the amount of alcohol they drink will need to consume higher amounts just to feel its effects, which can often lead to physical dependence.
When you become physically dependent on alcohol, your body will experience a set of symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and shaking when you stop drinking alcohol, or when you consume a lower amount than usual. These are known as withdrawal symptoms, which is your body’s way of rebalancing and correcting itself after having grown dependent on the presence of alcohol. An alcohol detox helps you overcome these symptoms with fewer risks, complications, and adverse side effects.
Withdrawing from alcohol on your own at home is highly dangerous, and not recommended for anyone who struggles with alcohol use disorder. Detoxing from alcohol at home can result in seizures, stroke, coma, and in severe cases, death.
The safest way to detox from alcohol is to go through a medical detox at an alcohol detox center, which offers 24-hour medical care and supervision.
A medical detox allows you to withdraw from alcohol in a safe, clean medical environment surrounded by nurses and doctors who monitor your vitals and lower the risk for serious complications like seizures. With a medical detox, you can be prescribed medications that relieve and eliminate your most severe withdrawal symptoms. A medical detox from alcohol allows for the most comfortable withdrawal experience possible, which lowers your risk of relapse since cravings and other symptoms won’t interfere with your recovery and influence you to drink.
What to Expect During Alcohol Detox
Knowing what to expect during an alcohol detox can help you physically and mentally prepare for treatment, and eliminates any surprises. Shortly after arriving at an alcohol detox center, you’ll undergo a medical assessment that includes blood and urine screening and a full review of your medical history. The purpose of the medical assessment is to determine which alcohol detox treatment will benefit you the most and whether you can benefit from medications that reduce alcohol cravings.
An alcohol detox by itself usually lasts between seven and 10 days, though most alcohol rehab programs last between 30 and 90 days. After you complete alcohol detox, you can spend the remainder of the time at rehab recovering from alcohol addiction, which usually involves a combination of therapy, counseling, and support groups. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends going through a 90-day rehab program, which offers the highest recovery success rate and gives you more than enough time in which to detox fully from alcohol and overcome the underlying root causes of your alcohol addiction.
A top benefit of having an alcohol detox at a medical detox center is gaining access to medications that can make your withdrawal from alcohol far easier and much more comfortable.
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Medications commonly used in alcohol detox:
- Acamprosate. This drug helps you stay sober by reducing alcohol cravings and the desire to drink alcohol.
- Disulfiram. This drug works as an alcohol deterrent by causing you to experience adverse symptoms such as nausea, chest pain, and dizziness when consuming alcohol.
- Benzodiazepines. These drugs help relieve anxiety and reduce the risk for seizures induced by quitting alcohol.
- Anticonvulsants. Anticonvulsants reduce the risk of seizures, and are sometimes used in place of benzodiazepines since these drugs tend to carry a lower risk for dependence and addiction.
- Anti-nausea medications. These drugs are effective at reducing nausea and vomiting — two of the most common alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
- Naltrexone. Also used in opioid detox to treat opioid dependence, naltrexone helps reduce alcohol cravings and blocks the euphoric effects of alcohol.
- Antidepressants. These medications can help relieve anxiety and depression brought on by alcohol withdrawal.
In most cases, you may be prescribed one or more of the above medications as part of alcohol detox treatment to assist with withdrawal. If at any point you experience extreme discomfort, you can communicate your symptoms to nurses and doctors who can alter your doses and medications as needed to improve your comfort level. During alcohol detox, you’ll also gain access to counselors and therapists who can help you feel more positive about your decision to become sober, and who can offer you help, guidance, and support along the way.
How Long Does it Take to Detox from Alcohol?
On average, it takes between seven and 10 days to detox completely from alcohol, though some may experience a subset of symptoms that last for several weeks or months. This is known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome, or PAWS. Most PAWS symptoms are emotional and psychological in nature and occur as the body recovers from the full effects of long-term alcohol dependence.
Alcohol withdrawal is normally broken down into three stages: early withdrawal, second-stage withdrawal, and third-stage withdrawal. Second-stage withdrawal is usually the most difficult and challenging stage of alcohol withdrawal but can be made safer and more comfortable with 24/7 medical supervision and medications.
Early Withdrawal: First 24 Hours
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can begin as early as six hours after having the last drink and normally begin with tremors. Initial symptoms are often minor, and gradually worsen until they peak at between 24 and 72 hours during the second stage of withdrawal.
Mild symptoms may include:
- Tremors and shaking
- Dilated pupils
- Clammy skin
- Heavy sweating
- Rapid heart rate
- Loss of appetite
- Mood swings
- Inability to think clearly
Many of the above symptoms are your body’s way of expelling toxins and stabilizing your blood sugar after quitting drinking. Drink plenty of water during the first 24 hours of alcohol detox, and eat healthy whole foods packed with vitamins and nutrients that can boost and accelerate your recovery. Avoid consuming foods high in refined sugar like pastries, candies, and soda, since these foods can spike your blood sugar level and suppress your immune system to delay recovery.
Second-Stage Withdrawal: 24 to 72 Hours
After the first 24 hours, many early withdrawal symptoms will gradually worsen and peak until the end of the 72-hour mark. Second-stage withdrawal symptoms can feel like a bad case of the flu, but can often be treated using alcohol detox medications. Additional symptoms can set in as part of your body’s healing process.
Additional withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulties with breathing
- Irregular heart rate
- Tense, rigid muscles
- Jaw clenching and teeth grinding
- Uncontrolled biting of the tongue and cheek
- Loss of bowel and bladder control
- Mental confusion
Medical supervision is often critical during second-stage withdrawal since symptoms like fever, breathing difficulties, irregular heart rate, and seizures can increase the risk for more serious complications like heart failure. More than 90% of alcohol withdrawal seizures occur within the first 48 hours of detox, but can be treated and managed using benzodiazepines and anticonvulsant medications. By the end of 72 hours, many of the above symptoms — including the risk for seizures — will have subsided and dissipated.
Third-Stage Withdrawal: 72+ Hours
Most alcohol detox patients will feel significantly better after day three, though symptoms of shaking and dizziness may still be present. Those who have been drinking alcohol excessively for many years may experience a severe form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens, or DT.
DT affects between 3% and 5% of those who experience any form of alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms of DT can be life-threatening and can cause death in up to 5% of those who experience this form of withdrawal. However, the risk of death can be greatly reduced for those who go through alcohol detox at a medical detox center.
Symptoms of DT may include:
- Delirium, or severe mental confusion
- Rapid mood swings
- Full-body muscle tremors
- Vivid hallucinations
- Grand mal seizures
- Extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and touch
- Deep sleep that lasts for at least 24 hours
- Fatal changes in heart rate
To lower your risk for experiencing DT, eat plenty of food, drink plenty of water, and continue taking benzodiazepines and anticonvulsant medications as directed. Those at highest risk for DT are those who have a history of seizures and brain disorders, those who have been drinking heavily for a long time, and those who have existing health problems in addition to alcohol use disorder.
PAWS symptoms often vary greatly from patient to patient based on their unique personal health status, biological makeup, and history of addiction. For instance, those who experienced depression prior to going through alcohol detox may experience worsened depression for up to several months following treatment, while those with a history of suicidal ideation may experience suicidal thoughts again as part of PAWS.
Common PAWS symptoms:
- Panic attacks
- Suicidal ideation
- Loss of motivation
- Problems with concentration
- Memory loss
- Mood swings
- Obsessive thoughts
- Drug cravings
- Anhedonia, or inability to feel pleasure
Patients who experience PAWS can benefit from therapy in extended care programs that teach them how to identify and manage triggers and situations that can lead to emotional states like depression and suicidal ideation. Group counseling and support group therapy can help you feel more positive about your recovery, and provide you with a solid support team that keeps you on track with sobriety. Talk to your doctor about developing a healthy nutrition plan and exercise regime, since diet and physical activity can naturally accelerate your body’s healing after overcoming alcohol dependence.
Where to Find an Alcohol Detox Center
Use our detox center directory to explore nearby alcohol detox centers in your city and state. All detox centers featured on Detox.com accept most major health insurance plans and offer a wide range of payment options so you or your loved one can receive addiction treatment as needed and deserved. Free detox treatment may be available for those who have Medicare, Medicaid, and health plans purchased online at HealthCare.gov.
If you or a loved one wants to learn how to detox from alcohol, call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 800-483-2193(Who Answers?). Our addiction specialists will answer all your questions, perform a free insurance benefit check, and help you find the right treatment available through your insurance provider. Our goal is to help you find a nearby alcohol detox center ready to guide you toward a healthier, more fulfilling alcohol-free lifestyle.