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Alcohol Detox: How Long Does It Take and What Happens?

An estimated 17.6 million Americans currently have alcohol use disorder (AUD), but only a fraction of the people with alcohol problems seek professional help. Even in severe cases, most people with AUD can benefit from some type of treatment.1

In a world of instantaneous gratification, people have the natural tendency to ask, “How long will it take?” with “it” being just about anything. Americans in the 21st century are accustomed to super quick results. It is normal for a person ready to embark on the difficult path of sobriety to feel anxious about what to expect and how long it will take to complete alcohol detox.

How Long Does It Take to Detox From Alcohol?

It is important to keep in mind that detox is just the initial step on the long road of recovery. Detox marks the abrupt ending of alcohol intake and is necessary for the body to cleanse itself of all traces of alcohol. The detox process usually takes seven to 10 days. Rehab programs, however, usually last a minimum of 30 to 45 days. Some clients benefit from 60- or 90-day stays at residential or inpatient treatment centers. The length of stay is based on the following:

  • The specific addiction
  • Addiction history
  • Addiction severity
  • The presence of other medical, mental or behavioral health conditions (co-occurring diagnosis)
  • The client’s physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual needs

Symptoms of Alcohol Detoxification

Symptoms experienced during detox from alcohol may be as mild as a headache or nausea, however some people experience severe delirium tremens (DTs) marked by seizures and/or hallucinations.

If there are no co-occurring conditions or other drug use or treatment, alcohol withdrawal follows a characteristic course consisting of three relatively distinct phases.2 The phases are as follows:

  1. Acute withdrawal: This period is dominated by tremors, autonomic nervous system hyperactivity and the risk for DTs and seizures. Seizures and tremors typically occur within the first 48 hours following discontinued consumption and peak around 24 hours. DTs typically peaks around 72 hours. Physiological symptoms commonly experienced during acute alcohol withdrawal include tachycardia (increased heart rate), increased blood pressure, diaphoresis (profuse sweating), body temperature dysregulation and gastrointestinal problems (nausea, vomiting).
  2. Early abstinence: During this second phase, anxiety, low mood and disturbed sleep patterns continue, but manifest without acute physical symptoms. Elevated anxiety resolves within three to six weeks after alcohol use ends. Women take slightly longer than men to move through this phase.
  3. Protracted abstinence: During this final phase, elevated anxiety and dysphoria (profound state of unease or dissatisfaction) may not be obvious, although normally insignificant challenges can provoke negativity, craving of alcohol and relapse.

The psychological discomfort associated with anxiety during abstinence can be overwhelming, even after the majority of acute physical symptoms have subsided. Experts believe this may play a prominent role in increasing the risk of relapse, as well as perpetuating continued use/abuse of alcohol.2

The Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body

Long-term addiction can take a heavy toll on the entire body. Alcohol can impact the heart and cause cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias (Irregular heart beat), stroke and high blood pressure. The liver takes the brunt with repercussions including fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis. Alcohol can also weaken the immune system, making people more prone to diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Excessive drinking can also increase the risk of oral, esophageal, throat, liver and breast cancer. In addition, alcoholics typically have a poor appetite and as a result, consume an inadequate and nutritionally poor diet. Combined with the physical challenges of detox, the body is nutritionally compromised.3

Many rehab programs use vitamin B1 supplements, along with folic acid and iron supplements, to boost overall health. Herbal teas and broths are also served to gently maintain hydration. Doctors overseeing the detox and rehab process may prescribe medications that can help reduce cravings and diminish the perceived pleasure of alcohol consumption.3

In order to achieve sobriety, both the physical and emotional aspects of a person’s life must be addressed. After the initial period of cleansing is complete, rehab begins in earnest. In order to overcome addiction to alcohol, people need to heal emotionally, which requires education and therapy. Rehab addresses the various aspects of excessive drinking and the residual physical and psychological effects of its abuse. It is imperative to learn what triggers the desire to drink and devise new and healthier ways of coping with these triggers.4

Emotional repercussions are common side effects when people stop drinking. Fatigue, depression, anxiety, nightmares or mood swings may be experienced as clients learn new methods of dealing with stress. Working on spiritual needs is another way for people in recovery to find inner emotional peace.4

In addition to the physical and emotional components addressed in rehab, a significant change in social habits is necessitated. Clients will work on developing healthier social interactions to replace time spent drinking or in drinking establishments. If a person has been abusing alcohol for a long time, they may have burned numerous bridges with friends and family that need to be rebuilt. Rehab also focuses on helping clients develop new social skills, as well as practical strategies for avoiding situations that can trigger a relapse.

Staying Sober and Preventing Relapses

When a person is discharged from detox, he or she is at high risk of relapse and therefore vulnerable to any system failures. Detox alone increases the risk of mortality from overdose if the client does not properly transition to substance use disorder treatment after discharge.5

At Promises, we help clients properly detox, teach them about addictions and triggers, work with them on replacing these destructive behaviors and assist them in transitioning to substance use disorder treatment in the community. A continuum of care is crucial to successful recovery and preventing relapses. If you or somebody you love is struggling with alcohol abuse, we are here to help.

  1. New NIAAA resource gives guidance on treatment options for alcohol problems. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/new-niaaa-resource-gives-guidance-treatment-options-alcohol-problems Published November 13, 2014. Accessed July 23, 2016.
  2. Heilig M, Egli M, Crabbe JC, Becker HC. Acute withdrawal, protracted abstinence and negative affect in alcoholism: Are they linked? Addict Biol. 2010 Apr; 15(2): 169–184. doi: 10.1111/j.1369-1600.2009.00194.x.
  3. Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body Accessed July 23, 2016.
  4. Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms + How Long Do They Last? Mental Health Daily. http://mentalhealthdaily.com/2014/07/17/alcohol-withdrawal-symptoms-how-long-do-they-last/ Accessed July 23, 2016.
  5. Spear SE. Reducing Readmissions to Detoxification: An Interorganizational Network Perspective. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2014 Apr 1;137:76-82. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2014.01.006. Epub 2014 Jan 25.

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