Around 14.4 million adults in the United States have an alcohol use disorder, an ongoing condition that affects your ability to stop or control drinking.
When you drink a lot of alcohol regularly, your brain chemistry adjusts over time to offset its sedative effects. When you stop drinking, your brain can become overstimulated, and you may have physical and mental health symptoms. This is called alcohol withdrawal.
“[Alcohol] is different than other drugs with respect to the dangers associated with withdrawing,” says Margie Skeer, Associate Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine.
"While not everyone has serious symptoms, others may develop life-threatening seizures or other severe side effects," Skeer states. Because alcohol withdrawal can be deadly for some people who try to detox on their own without medical care, it’s important to talk to your doctor before you stop drinking.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
If your brain has adjusted to heavy, long-term alcohol use, here’s what you might experience when you stop drinking, according to Harvard Medical School. Symptoms and severity vary from person to person, and you may need hospital treatment.
5 to 10 hours after your last drink: You may experience tremors (shaking), increase or decrease in blood pressure, quick breathing, sweating, vomiting, irritability, trouble sleeping, anxiety, and a rapid pulse. These symptoms typically peak within 24 to 48 hours.
12 to 24 hours: You may have hallucinations, meaning you see, hear, or feel things that aren’t there. This can last up to 2 days or sometimes longer.
24 to 48 hours: You may have withdrawal-related seizures.
3 days to a week: One of the more severe side effects of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens. It often requires treatment in an intensive care unit. This condition can cause dehydration, rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, and reduced blood flow to the brain. Symptoms include confusion, loss of consciousness, angry or nervous behavior, hallucinations, soaking sweats, and disturbed sleep. Delirium tremens happens in only about 5% of people who go through alcohol withdrawal, but it kills up to 1 in 20 people who develop it, according to Harvard Medical School.
5 days after your last drink: Alcohol withdrawal symptoms tend to improve within 5 days. However, a small number of people have withdrawal symptoms that last for weeks.
Weeks to several months: Take care of your body and your mind. After you’ve gone through alcohol withdrawal, don’t start drinking again. Gettingre at an inpatient or outpatient treatment center dramatically improves your chances of staying sober. Also ask your doctor how long-term drinking may have affected your health.
How to Get Help
Detox and withdrawal typically takes 2 to 7 days and is done in a hospital or inpatient treatment center, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol and trying to decide between inpatient or outpatient treatment, WebMD's Connect to Care Advisors are standing by.