What Happens, When? A Guide to the Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

As of 2015, more than 15 million adults in the United States had alcohol use disorder, more often known as alcoholism. About 88,000 people die every year from alcohol-related causes, making it the third leading preventable cause of death. With statistics like that, it’s not surprising that many people suffering from alcoholism are looking to quit.

Quitting alcohol isn’t as easy as going cold-turkey, though. When someone stops using alcohol, they enter alcohol withdrawal, a dangerous process of detoxifying the body from alcohol. Read on to learn more about the alcohol withdrawal timeline and what happens at each stage.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal happens when a person who has an alcohol dependence – a physical addiction to alcohol – stops using it. While we all experience hangovers from time to time, this is a different process. The people who experience alcohol withdrawal are those who have been drinking every day, usually more than two or three drinks, for a long time.

Alcohol withdrawal happens because of the chemical changes in the brain that come along with drinking – and then stopping – alcohol. Alcohol is a central nervous system suppressant, so if a person is drinking regularly, their system behaves differently. When they stop drinking, their brain gets flooded with high levels of chemicals, which cause the symptoms of withdrawal.

When Does Alcohol Withdrawal Happen?

As we mentioned, alcohol withdrawal doesn’t happen just because you overindulged on New Year’s Eve. Some of the symptoms may seem similar, but they are two different processes. Withdrawal happens in people who have developed a physical dependence on alcohol because of prolonged use.

There is no specific amount of alcohol or frequency of use that labels someone as an alcoholic. In fact, there are eleven criteria that go into diagnosing someone with alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism. In general, moderate drinking is considered to be two standard drinks a day.

The Mild Stage

Alcohol withdrawal takes place over about a week, with the symptoms being divided into three stages. The first stage happens within hours of the person quitting alcohol. In fact, alcoholics may experience this stage of withdrawal many times depending on how often throughout the day they drink.

Within six to twelve hours after their last drink, the person may have trouble thinking clearly and have a headache. They may be nauseous or vomit, and their hands might develop a minor tremor. Other symptoms can include anxiety or stress, irritability, clammy skin, sweating, and mood swings.

The Moderate Stage

Twelve hours after the person’s last drink, they will enter the moderate stage of alcohol withdrawal. This is where things can start to get scary, and it’s a good idea to consult a medical professional for help. They can make sure that the detoxification process that’s happening goes smoothly and safely.

In the moderate stage, which will last until forty-eight hours after the last drink, the person may start to experience hallucinations, specifically involving sight, hearing, or touch. They may have increased blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat. In some cases, they may even have trouble breathing or have a seizure.

The Severe Stage

The severe stage of alcohol withdrawal begins about forty-eight hours after the person stops using alcohol and lasts until about seventy-two hours into the detox process. This stage can be very dangerous and even fatal if left untreated. If you or a loved one are going through this stage, seek medical help to guide you through safely.

During the severe stage, the person’s hallucinations, sometimes known as delirium tremens, will get worse. They may be agitated and disoriented, and they may have a rapid heartbeat. They can have more seizures, experience extreme tremors, and go into cardiac arrest, which can be life-threatening.

Influencing Factors

Everyone’s experience with alcohol withdrawal is different, so what determines if your symptoms are milder or more severe? Some of it has to do with your medical history. If you have a history of seizures or mental illnesses, you may be more likely to experience delirium tremens.

Use of other drugs at the same time as alcohol can also influence withdrawal symptoms. If you or a loved one are going through withdrawal and there is a history of other drug use, the best thing to do is be honest with your doctor. Tell them what you use, how often, and when the last time you used it was so they can help you have the safest, smoothest withdrawal possible.

When to Seek Help

As we mentioned, it is crucial if you are going through withdrawal to seek medical attention. You don’t want to try to deal with seizures hallucinations, and tremors on your own. A doctor can help you take measures to prevent some of the more severe symptoms, give you medication to ease some of the more painful symptoms, and be on hand to help if things go wrong.

There are lots of resources for those who are looking to quit using alcohol. The American Addiction Centers offers a list of free drug rehab and detox centers that specialize in helping people through withdrawal. From there, Alcoholic Anonymous is a popular program for helping people recover from the emotional and psychological effects of alcohol abuse.

Learn More About the Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

Alcohol withdrawal can be a scary process, but with the proper medical help, you can make it through safely. Knowing the stages of the alcohol withdrawal timeline can be helpful so you know what to expect and when. Reach out, get help, and use your resources to help guide you through this process.

If you’d like to get help with the withdrawal process, reach out to us at Better Help Addiction Care. We provide a safe setting and help you detox in the way that is best for you, whether that be at home, in an outpatient setting, or in the hospital. Learn more about our alcohol rehab programs today.