Many people think of alcohol as a more or less benign substance. Alcohol is present at celebrations, restaurants, and even many family gatherings; it’s an accepted part of life for some people. However, that doesn’t mean it is harmless. In fact, alcohol produces some of the worst withdrawal symptoms of any substance, including hard drugs. And while some people can consume alcohol once in a while without becoming addicted, many others cannot moderate their use. Detoxing from alcohol is uncomfortable, and it can even be dangerous without proper medical supervision, but it is still possible. People make it through alcohol withdrawals every day, and you can too. The good news is that alcohol detox doesn’t last forever. In fact, the worst symptoms usually only last for a week or so. Here’s what you need to know about the physical process of detoxing from alcohol and embarking on a sober life.
The Stages of Alcohol Detox
Alcohol is both physically and psychologically addictive. A person can be psychologically addicted to alcohol without going through physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. But if you have been drinking heavily for months or even years, your body is accustomed to having some alcohol in your system, and you will most likely go through physical withdrawals. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it inhibits your body’s nervous system. Your body has to work extra hard to breathe, think, and function when you’ve been drinking. If you drink frequently, your body gets used to the presence of alcohol and adapts to accommodate it. This is physical addiction. When you are physically addicted to alcohol, your body has a hard time adjusting back to its normal state after your last drink. You experience withdrawal symptoms as a result.
Initial Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal
When you quit drinking, withdrawal symptoms can set in fairly quickly. Depending on factors like your height, weight, and how much you’ve habitually been drinking, you might notice your first withdrawals as soon as six hours after you stop consuming alcohol. You will probably notice some or all of the following symptoms:
- Shaking or trembling, especially in your hands
- Increased perspiration
- Mood swings, anxiety, or irritability
- Heart palpitations
These early symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can last for a day or two.
The Most Severe Stage of Detox
Most alcoholics seeking recovery find that their withdrawal symptoms are most severe starting one to two days after their last drink. This stage of alcohol withdrawal can become life-threatening if it is not supervised by a medical professional. Symptoms you might deal with during this stage of detox include:
- An increase in blood pressure
- Confusion or brain fog
During this part of the detoxing process, delirium tremens (or DT) can occur. DT is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal, and it’s very dangerous. Not everybody experiences delirium tremens while withdrawing from alcohol — only about five percent of recovering alcoholics go through the worst symptoms. If you’ve been drinking heavily for a long time, or if you have experienced DT in the past when quitting alcohol, you’re at higher risk for developing it. Delirium tremens causes the following symptoms:
- Body tremors
- Tonic-clonic seizures
- Extreme confusion or inability to tell fantasy from reality
- Strong emotions such as anger, excitement, or fear
Not all alcohol withdrawal symptoms qualify as delirium tremens. However, DT can be fatal to the people who do develop the condition, so it’s incredibly important to be cautious and responsible as you’re detoxing from alcohol. If you think you or someone you know is experiencing DT, treat the situation like the medical emergency it is and get help immediately. If you have a history of drinking heavily and frequently, do not attempt to detox by yourself — look for a treatment center where a medical professional can monitor your vital signs as you detox instead. Whether or not a person develops delirium tremens, the most severe stage of alcohol withdrawal typically lasts two to three days.
Coping with Ongoing Detox Symptoms
You’ll know that your body is mostly done detoxing from alcohol when your symptoms start to ease. This usually happens within about a week, even for people who used to drink heavily. However, it can be a long time until your body and mind are fully acclimated to functioning without alcohol again. Some people experience long-term side effects called post-acute withdrawal syndrome (often abbreviated PAWS) after they stop drinking. Symptoms of PAWS can include:
- Being clumsy or accident-prone
- Fatigue or apathy
- Memory problems
- Irritability or anxiety
PAWS can last for a long time. People who used to drink heavily may find that they experience these symptoms for up to a year after quitting. But PAWS is rarely permanent, and many people experience symptoms for only a few weeks before starting to feel better. The good news is that dealing with PAWS is straightforward once you’ve gotten through the first week of detox. Surrounding yourself with supportive and positive people, living a healthy lifestyle, and seeing a therapist will help you stay on track. As time goes by, you’ll feel better and better, until one day you realize that you feel like yourself again.
It only takes about a week to physically detox from alcohol. You’ll know that the substance is out of your body when your withdrawal symptoms start to retreat. However, withdrawal symptoms can vary a lot from person to person. Some people experience only mild shakes and irritability, while others go through life-threatening delirium tremens followed by post-acute withdrawal syndrome. Because it’s hard to predict how your withdrawals will go until you actually quit drinking, it’s important to detox under a doctor’s supervision. If you’re ready to turn the page and leave alcohol behind for good, get in touch today at (866) 840-6411 to learn more about your options for detoxing in a safe way.