Detox from alcohol can begin shortly after your last drink. Depending on the circumstances, the process typically takes between 3 to 10 days in an outpatient or supervised inpatient setting.
Have you ever heard the joke about how an alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do?
If so, then you’ll see the irony in waking up and realizing: Wait a minute, I’ve become that person. I don’t like myself much anymore.
When you reach that moment of reckoning, you know that it’s time to stop drinking. But then you think about detoxing and you get worried. You wonder, How long will this take? Can I get through it?
In this post, we’ll talk about how long it takes to detox from alcohol, and we’ll also address the root cause of why you’re drinking in the first place.
How Long to Detox From Alcohol: Just the Facts
The short (and frustrating) answer to this question is: it depends, but typically it takes between 3 - 10 days to detox from alcohol. Extreme cases can be as long as 14 days.
Remember, this is strictly a physiological timeline for ridding the body of toxic alcohol substances, most often under medical supervision.
The safest medical detox treatment occurs under the supervision of trained medical personnel in appropriate facilities.
With medically-supervised alcohol detox, you can manage physical withdrawal symptoms, accelerate the detoxification process, and receive medical care from board-certified physicians and licensed medical staff.
This phase typically takes 3-10 days in an inpatient or an outpatient setting.
In the vast majority of cases, however, full recovery from alcohol abuse requires some additional programs, counseling, and therapies; more on that in a minute.
Alcohol Detox Timeline
When you’re estimating alcohol detox timeline, you need to take several factors into account:
- How heavily you’ve been drinking
- Whether you’ve been mixing alcohol and other drugs
- How long you’ve been addicted to alcohol
- Your body size and weight
- Your diet
- The detox program you choose (ideally, you’ll choose a professional, comprehensive medical detox)
- Your concurrent mental health conditions (addiction combined with a mental or emotional health issue is called dual diagnosis)
On a purely physical level, going cold turkey can trigger withdrawal symptoms as soon as two hours after your last drink. These symptoms typically reach their peak within approximately 24 to 72 hours.
While individual cases may vary, a non-medically supervised alcohol detox timeline typically follows these steps:
According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM),
- Stage 1 withdrawal symptoms appear within about 8 hours after the last drink.
- Physical withdrawal symptoms generally peak within 1-3 days, and may be accompanied by stage 2 and stage 3 symptoms.
- Symptoms begin to wane during days 5-7.
- Some withdrawal symptoms may persist for several weeks without treatment.
Alcohol Detox Timeline - Medically-Supervisied
Medically-supervised alcohol detox can be completed within 3-10 days, depending on the severity of the case and other factors. This can be done on an inpatient or outpatient basis.
The general steps and timeline include:
- Replenish depleted vitamins and nutrients in the brain.
- Control hydration.
- Introduce calming medications as needed to reduce anxiety.
- Monitor blood-alcohol levels, blood pressure, heart rate, and other vital signs.
These steps are repeated and monitored for about 3 days (sometimes more) in many top detox centers. Many times patients have the option to start Naltrexone therapy, which uses non-addictive, non-narcotic medicine to prevent cravings.
Alcohol Detox Side Effects
The severity of your side effects and withdrawal symptoms will depend on the extent of your drinking problem, but here are a few of the most common physical symptoms, listed in stages according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM):
Stage 1 Alcohol Detox Side Effects
- Shakes / tremors
- Abdominal Pain
Stage 2 Alcohol Detox Side Effects
- Elevated blood pressure
- Elevated body temperature
- Increased heart rate
Stage 3 Alcohol Withdrawal Side Effects
- Extreme agitation
- Delirium Tremens (DTs)
What are DTs? (Delirium Tremens)
Delirium tremens is a term that describes the most serious form of alcohol withdrawal. DTs occur in about 3-5% of people going through alcohol withdrawal, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. They can be life-threatening if not treated properly.
DTs may not start for a day or two after alcohol has been removed from the bloodstream.
As you can see, withdrawing from alcohol use can precipitate serious health consequences. The more dependent on alcohol a person is, the more likely that person will experience serious (stage 3) withdrawal symptoms.
That’s why it’s best to do a supervised detox with qualified medical professionals. (Here are some top medical detox centers we highly recommend.)
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
Virtually all physical addictions have a similar effect on the brain: the addictive substance triggers the release of feel-good hormone dopamine, which provides a sense of relief and / or euphoria. Dopamine helps to control the brain's reward and pleasure centers.
When a person abuses alcohol for many years, the body builds a tolerance to the substance. As such, greater quantities must be consumed to achieve the same effect on the brain.
According to the NLM, if a person who has abused alcohol for a long time stops drinking suddenly, the body will experience withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol enhances the impact of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which inhibits and reduces the excitabilitiy of the brain. When alcohol is removed, the brain can become overexcited since the inhibition mechanism is no longer in place. After that, physical withdrawal symptoms begin.
The Root Cause of Alcoholism and Your Drinking
Medical detox is a great first step, but it’s only the beginning of your recovery. After all, you don’t want to do the hard work of clearing your system of alcohol without addressing the true root cause of your drinking.
Not sure of what that might be? Here’s the real reason why you’re drinking, in just six words: Because you don’t want to feel.
You don’t want to feel your sadness and your anger, so you drink instead. There’s a distinct connection between alcoholism and anger … between alcoholism and any painful, pushed-down emotion, for that matter.
Our emotions resist being pushed down below the surface. They are always seeking safe expression, and they are incredibly persistent about it!
Our co-founder Joe Koelzer uses this illustration to explain it. What happens when you push an inflated beach ball down under water? It keeps popping back up. It takes a lot of stress and effort to keep shoving that inflated beach ball down.
The Addictive Cycle in Play
In the same way, keeping a tight lid on taboo emotions such as anger and sadness creates a lot of pressure within the psyche. Trying to suppress those unruly emotions is exhausting, and eventually even the strongest of us get tired.
And when we reach the end of our energy reserves, we turn to alcohol to help us feel better and numb out. We find relief … for a little while at least.
But then when the buzz wears off those tenacious, unacknowledged emotions come rushing back, so we reach for another drink and the cycle continues.
"An Alcoholic is Not the Same Man at All"
All of this drinking and drugging cuts us off from ourselves, from our true felt experiences. It turns us into people we don’t recognize, and we’re not sure how to find our way back to clarity.
As Raymond Chandler wrote in The Long Goodbye:
“A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can't predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.”
It can be scary to enter detox and start your recovery journey. You may be overwhelmed by years of bottled-up emotions that come rushing to the surface.
The good news is, when you enter recovery you actually get to know yourself, addict aspect and all. You meet the person you’ve never met before; you befriend the stranger who is yourself.
Medical Detox Isn’t Enough
As we wrote in our post Why Medical Detox Isn’t Enough to End Most Addictions:
“Since most people dealing with addiction have a dual diagnosis, there are usually underlying emotional issues driving their overuse of drugs and alcohol. Detox only involves healing at the physical level. It doesn’t heal the deeper issues fueling the addictive behavior.”
How long does it take to detox from alcohol? That’s easy; it typically takes between 3 and 10 days.
But how long does it take to begin addressing the underlying core mental and emotional health issues that are driving your alcohol use in the first place?
Our answer is 28 days, because that’s the length of our residential addiction treatment Program. Our evidence-based approach is centered around healing underlying core issues, so that you can achieve lasting recovery.
Download a free copy of our eBook, "Healing Underlying Core Issues" or give us a call at (425) 275-8600 today.