WebMD Logo Icon
WebMD Connect to Care helps you find services to manage your health. When you purchase any of these services, WebMD may receive a fee. WebMD does not endorse any product, service or treatment referred to on this page. X

How Long Does It Take to Detox From Alcohol?

By Gillian Tietz, Jon McKenna
The answer depends on things like your age, weight, and drinking history.

If you drink alcohol to excess and suddenly stop, you can expect withdrawal symptoms to start within a few hours or a few days. Your alcohol detox symptoms may merely be uncomfortable if you haven’t had a drinking problem for long. But if you’ve misused alcohol for years, these symptoms may be severe and even life-threatening. Read on to learn more about the factors that could potentially affect your timeline while you detox from alcohol. 

What can I expect after stopping drinking?

Lin Sternlicht, a licensed mental health counselor in Manhattan, tells WebMD Connect to Care that withdrawal symptoms will set in at different times and intensities, depending on things like your: 

  • Drinking history 

  • Age 

  • Weight

Minor detox symptoms may show up in just 2 to 6 hours after your last drink, she says. They will typically peak in 1 to 3 days for a lighter drinker, but may last for a week with heavy drinkers. Persistent withdrawal symptoms are fairly rare, she says, but they may last for a month or more.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), many people going through withdrawal have:

  • Feelings of anxiety, nervousness, and irritability

  • Feelings of depression

  • A sense of exhaustion

  • Physical shakiness

  • Mood swings

  • Unclear thinking

Trouble sleeping is also a frequent symptom of alcohol detox, Bob Nies, a substance abuse consultant with Professional Treatment Centers in Winter Park, FL, tells WebMD Connect to Care.  

A doctor doing an exam of someone who is going through alcohol withdrawal typically expects certain physical signs and symptoms including:

  • Hand tremors

  • A rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure

  • Dilated pupils

  • High body temperature or fever

  • Rapid breathing

In addition, according to SAMHSA, 3-5% of people who detox from heavy drinking have delirium tremens, a condition that requires emergency medical treatment. The symptoms of this condition can include:

  • Fever

  • Extreme agitation and confusion

  • Seizures

  • Hallucinations

In the absence of treatment, delirium tremens can lead to heart attack, stroke, and death.

Medical and treatment professionals urge alcoholics not to attempt detox without constant attention, preferably from a doctor. Even if your symptoms are mild enough to try to detox at home, you’ll need someone standing by in case of problems, and you should expect daily doctor visits. Many professionals recommend a period of inpatient care

“When a person with an alcohol dependence stops drinking without a medical detox, it can be extremely dangerous and even fatal,” Sternlicht says.  

How do you detox from drinking alcohol?

There are a few ways that doctors can help you detox from alcohol safely. “The most important treatment to detox is time so that the body can metabolize alcohol into metabolites.” Eva Shelton, M.D. at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Mochi Health, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “In the meantime, we generally give them thiamine and food to help nourish the body and decrease the rate of absorption of the remaining alcohol in the stomach. Many alcoholics are deficient in thiamine, which plays a crucial part in metabolism, which is why we replete it before giving food.”

“We normally give lorazepam for patients who are in ethanol withdrawal.” Dr. Michael Brown, RPh, BCPS, BCPP Clinical pharmacist - Psychiatry, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “Ativan is a benzodiazepine that keeps the patient from having seizures. If that is ineffective, we move to phenobarbital. In the hospital we have order sets built for the physicians to use.”

In general, heavier and more frequent drinkers need to be more cautious about taking on detox than less-frequent drinkers do, Sternlicht says. She says to seek medical care right away if you start to have:

  • Fever
  • Abnormal breathing 
  • Nausea

Don’t attempt detox without medical supervision if you’re older or you have: 

  • Liver problems 
  • A history of seizures 
  • Drug problems

How do you know if your liver is detoxing?

According to the NHS, the liver is very resilient and is capable of regenerating itself. However, a portion of your liver cells die each time your liver has to process alcohol. The liver can regenerate cells, but chronic heavy drinking can result in damage to the liver. 

If you have damage to your liver, then lifelong abstinence is recommended, because not drinking alcohol is the only way to prevent your liver damage from getting worse. Blood tests and liver function tests can help determine if your liver is healing. If you were experiencing any symptoms of liver disease from your drinking, then you may see these symptoms begin to dissipate within a few weeks after quitting drinking. However, depending on the severity of the damage, healing could take longer.

We monitor liver function through liver function tests, which evaluate the levels of a few important enzymes made by the liver, including alkaline phosphatase(ALP), alanine transferase(ALT), aspartate aminotransferase(AST), γ glutamyl transferase(GGT).” Shelton explains. “Most importantly for alcoholic liver disease are AST and ALT. Decreasing AST/ALT suggests improving liver function.”

How long does it take for alcohol to turn off inside the body?

It’s important to note that alcohol doesn’t really “turn off” or “turn on” in the body. It’s either processed or unprocessed in the body’s systems.

However, according to American Addiction Centers, the speed that alcohol is broken down is influenced by gender, weight, age, and the amount of food you’ve eaten. When you drink alcohol, it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the lining of the stomach and small intestines. This process occurs as quickly as 30 seconds to 20 minutes, but having food in your stomach will slow down the absorption process. Alcohol is then carried in the blood throughout the body to the brain.

In the liver, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase breaks down alcohol at a rate of about one standard drink per hour. One standard drink is a 12 oz 5% beer, 5 oz glass of 12% wine, or a 1.5 oz shot of liquor. If you are drinking faster than one standard drink per hour, the liver is unable to keep up and alcohol will remain in your bloodstream. The higher a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the more severe the effects of alcohol are and the longer it will take for their body to process all the alcohol they’ve consumed.

According to Medical News Today, there are some factors that influence the speed that your body processes alcohol, including:

  • Age. The older a person is, the longer alcohol stays in their liver meaning unprocessed alcohol remains in the bloodstream longer.
  • Gender. Women typically have higher body fat percentage and lower percentage of body water compared to men, so women will process alcohol slower.
  • Time since last drink. If you are binge drinking, then the liver will have trouble keeping up.
  • Medications. Certain medications impact how the body is able to process alcohol including anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, antibiotics, allergy medications, and diabetes medications.

In terms of BAC, alcohol is typically eliminated at a rate of 0.015 per hour. If you have a BAC of 0.08, then it will take about 5.5 hours for your body to process and eliminate the alcohol you drank. 

When someone drinks large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time they may experience alcohol poisoning. This occurs when the liver is overwhelmed and the alcohol levels in your bloodstream rise to dangerous levels. According to Cleveland Clinic, since alcohol is a depressant, very high levels of alcohol impact vital body functions like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, then it is important to get them to a hospital right away. This condition is treated with IV fluids, oxygen, stomach pumping, and in extreme cases blood filtration.

How long does the body take to recover from alcohol abuse?

According to American Addiction Centers and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), heavy drinking causes damage to the neurons in all areas of the brain and inhibits the functioning of every process in the brain. Depending on how much you drank and for how long, with abstinence most people can see partial correction of this damage within a few months to a year. Similarly, any damage to the cardiovascular system will generally resolve within a few months to a year of abstinence. 

As long as liver damage has not progressed to cirrhosis, it will begin to heal when you stop drinking. “In acute liver insults, we see a transient increase in AST and ALT which should return to normal within days.” explains Dr. Sheton. “However, in more chronic illnesses like alcoholic liver disease, then it may take the timeline of weeks to months to see significant improvement.”

How Treatment Helps

SAMHSA reports that those getting help for alcohol misuse should consider asking their doctor if an FDA-approved medication for treating alcohol use disorder—such as acamprosate calcium, disulfiram, orv naltrexone, among others—might be right for you. These medications can help you to maintain your recovery. Here are some specifics:

  • Disulfiram, also known as Antabuse. Alcohol is first broken down into acetaldehyde by the liver, which is very toxic. This medication blocks the conversion of acetaldehyde to acetic acid, causing a buildup of acetaldehyde. Drinking on Antabuse is dangerous and can cause very unpleasant side effects including headache, nausea, vomiting, mental confusion, anxiety, and redness. These symptoms are meant to serve as deterrants against drinking. 
  • Naltrexone, also known as Vivitrol. This medication is an opiate antagonist and blocks opioid receptors in the brain. It can reduce cravings for alcohol and reduces the feeling of euphoria you experience when you drink.
  • Acamprosate, also known as Campral.This medication seems to reduce cravings, although the exact mechanism of action is still being investigated in research. Campral is often used in combination with either Antabuse or naltrexone.

Don't Wait. Get Help Now

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.

Life After Alcohol Addiction Treatment