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 abused alcohol for years, they may be severe and even life-threatening.
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,” Lin Sternlicht, a licensed mental health counselor in Manhattan, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Sternlicht says withdrawal symptoms will set in at different times and intensities, depending on things like your:
- Drinking history
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, says Bob Nies, a substance abuse consultant with Professional Treatment Centers in Winter Park, FL.
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% to 5% of people who detox from heavy drinking have delirium tremens, a condition that requires emergency medical treatment. The symptoms can include:
- Extreme agitation and confusion
In the absence of treatment, delirium tremens can lead to heart attack, stroke, and death.
How Treatment Helps
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:
- Abnormal breathing
Don’t attempt detox without medical supervision if you’re older or you have:
- Lliver problems
- A history of seizures
- Drug problems
SAMHSA says you should consider asking your doctor if an FDA-approved medication for treating alcohol use disorder—such as acamprosate calcium, disulfiram, and naltrexone, among others—might be right for you.
Get Help Now
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.