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Detoxing from Alcohol: What Is Withdrawal Like?

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Are you struggling with your drinking? Have you tried cutting back- but you haven’t been successful? If so, you’re not alone. Over 14 million Americans struggle with an alcohol use disorder, and alcohol causes about 88,000 deaths each year. Help is available; it starts with detox.

While withdrawing from alcohol may seem overwhelming or even frightening, alcohol addiction treatment, beginning with detox, offers support and guidance.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal to Happen?

Alcohol is a depressant. Depressants affect the central nervous system, reducing the efficiency of brain and body communication.

With chronic drinking, your brain adapts to the depressant effects of alcohol. Over time it readjusts how it functions to adapt to the alcohol, meaning you need more of it and to have it more consistently.

Alcohol withdrawal occurs after someone suddenly stops drinking alcohol. This happens after a persistent, excessive pattern of drinking. The brain suddenly must adjust to the lack of alcohol. This adjustment process is known as withdrawal, and it causes both physical and psychological symptoms.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms and Timeline

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can occur within about eight hours after your last drink. For some people, the onset is a few days later. The more severe symptoms typically peak between 24 and 72 hours. Symptoms can linger for several days or weeks.

The most typical alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Nightmares and sleep issues
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Anxiety and jitters
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • High cravings to drink
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Tremors (alcohol shakes)
  • Sweating
  • Clammy skin
  • Headaches

Quitting drinking can result in delirium tremens (DTs). DTs is rare, but it can be very dangerous. Watch out for:

  • Severe disorientation and confusion
  • Body tremors
  • Agitation
  • Changes in mental functioning
  • Hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that are not there)
  • Restlessness
  • Rapid bursts of energy
  • Extreme sensitivity to lights, sounds, or touch
  • Seizures

Self-Assessment: Am I Addicted?

Is Medical Supervision Necessary During Alcohol Detox?

It Keeps You Safe.

During alcohol detox, the body eliminates itself from the toxins associated with drinking. In severe cases, it can be fatal. If alcohol withdrawal is fatal, it’s typically because of:

  • Medical complications
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Relapsing on alcohol and overdosing

Other life-threatening concerns include:

  • Diminished electrolyte levels, which can cause cardiac complications that result in death
  • Low phosphate levels, which can stop breathing and cause a coma
  • Alcoholic ketoacidosis, which impacts how your pancreas produces insulin

Medical detox offers support and structure, so you’re not enduring this first and potentially dangerous phase of recovery on your own. Trained medical professionals can help keep you comfortable and safe.

It Removes You from Temptation.

During acute withdrawal, many people experience intense urges to drink. Without supervision, relapse is common during this phase. As a result, people find themselves in vicious relapse cycles. Fortunately, detox removes you from your environment. This strategy can help get rid of some of your triggers, allowing you to focus exclusively on your recovery. Detox is the first step in being able to stand on your own without alcohol.

What Happens During Medical Detox for Alcohol?

During detox, you will be evaluated regularly by trained medical staff. These professionals will prioritize your critical health needs. They can also provide support and coping skills if you feel depressed or anxious.

The alcohol detox timeline varies, and the most severe symptoms tend to lessen after a few days. The severity of your detox depends on:

  • The frequency and intensity of your alcohol consumption
  • The presence of other drugs in your bloodstream
  • Any medical health conditions
  • Mental health
  • Past histories of alcohol detox

What Happens After Detox?

Detox helps stabilize your body and mind, but it’s not a substitute for treatment. Most people benefit from long-term clinical services. Inpatient or outpatient alcohol treatment gives you tools for moving forward in your recovery. Learn more about the programs at Footprints to Recovery here.

Can Medication Help with Alcohol Withdrawal?

Medication can help reduce or eliminate withdrawal side effects.


Naltrexone blocks receptors associated with alcohol cravings. If you drink while taking naltrexone, the medication prevents you from feeling the pleasant effects of alcohol. Naltrexone is available in both oral and injectable forms.

Disulfiram (Antabuse)

Antabuse was the first drug approved for treating alcoholism. It works by creating unpleasant side effects if you drink alcohol, which discourages you from drinking. Antabuse comes in oral tablets taken once a day.

Acamprosate (Campral)

The FDA has approved Campral for alcohol withdrawal. Campral can reduce the severity of your withdrawal symptoms. It comes in doses of two tablets, taken three times or four times per day.


The FDA also approves some benzodiazepines for alcohol withdrawal. Drugs like Valium or Librium can help with anxiety symptoms. They can also reduce or control seizures.

Getting Help for Alcohol Withdrawal

Living a life free from alcohol addiction is possible. Many people make that choice every single day. If you’re ready to change, take the first step today. Learn about alcohol treatment at Footprints to Recovery here.

Questions about treatment options?

Our admissions team is available 24/7 to listen to your story and help you get started with the next steps.

Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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