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Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline: Phases of Alcohol Withdrawal

phases-alcohol-withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal is always easiest when performed under professional monitoring and with the support of the proper medications. If you’ve been abusing alcohol and suspect that you’re now dependent upon it, going cold turkey at home is a dangerous choice.

Detoxing is always uncomfortable. However, with alcohol, it’s important to account for the significant changes that have occurred in brain functioning as the result of drinking. Long-term and heavy alcohol use disrupts normal neurotransmitter activity.

With time, this disruption goes beyond merely impacting how people feel emotionally when abstaining. It can actually affect their bodies’ ability to regulate basic functions across multiple organs, organ systems, and important biological processes.

Understanding the phases of withdrawal will give you a clear idea of what to expect when quitting. It will also highlight the importance of getting professional help.

The earliest stages of alcohol withdrawal are intense, but the first symptoms to arise are relatively moderate. Within just six to eight hours of their last drink, recovering alcoholics may experience:

  • Headaches 
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Brain fog

These symptoms will intensify for approximately two days, and will likely peak after 48 hours. During or shortly after this time, it is not uncommon for people to vomit, sweat excessively, struggle with insomnia, and suffer balance and coordination issues. These are common symptoms of the second phase of physical withdrawal. If these and other early withdrawal symptoms aren’t mitigated properly, the effects of the second stage of detox can extend to three days or longer.

Moreover, many heavy drinkers will likely develop withdrawal delirium or delirium tremens after abstaining from alcohol for several days. Stage three of alcohol detox or delirium tremens can be life-threatening when experienced alone. Delirium tremens typically last from day three of abstinence to approximately day seven. However, delirium tremens can also last for several weeks unless the right medical interventions are made.

Phases of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol is readily sold at stores and routinely enjoyed in social settings. It may be difficult to understand why abstaining from it has such a dangerous effect on the body. Alcohol is frequently used by people to elevate their moods.

Initially, it’s quite effective to this end given its ability to trigger the release of endorphins or “feel good” chemicals. When people drink, their bodies are flooded with dopamine and other “feel good” chemicals. These chemicals provide an instant sense of euphoria and stress relief.

The chemicals that drinking stimulates are classified as neurotransmitters. Not only do neurotransmitters elevate moods, but they also have a vast range of important jobs throughout the body. For instance, dopamine plays a hand in memory formation, balance, coordination, and more. Neurotransmitters are also responsible for sending messages throughout the brain’s cells. 

When detoxing from alcohol, most people expect the greatest discomfort to arise from their inability to drink. They’ve often become acclimated to using alcohol for mood regulation, and to alleviate their stress. In reality, however, detoxing from alcohol can send the entire body into a severe state of distress.

Throughout the years, overexposure to alcohol and repeated over-activation of the neurotransmitters eventually makes the brain and the body unable to function properly.

During the first phase of alcohol detox, moderate symptoms of distress are felt throughout the digestive system. Headaches often indicate changes in blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Depression and mood swings may occur as the brain is forced to return to normal neurotransmitter production.

The second stage of withdrawal represents a higher level of physiological panic. Alcohol and all residual toxins are leaving the body faster than the brain can repair itself. Delirium tremens or the third stage of alcohol detox represents a dangerous phase of physiological failure. Throughout this time, various systems and functions are at risk of shutting down.

Common symptoms of withdrawal delirium include:

  • Significant fluctuations in body temperature
  • Excessively high or low blood pressure
  • Heart palpitations and chest pain
  • Extreme confusion and agitation
  • Significant decreases in cognitive functioning
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

In a monitored treatment environment, rehab professionals can actually mitigate the symptoms of the first two phases of detox so that delirium tremens never present. Medication is used to gradually ease the body and brain back to normal levels of functioning, thereby neutralizing physiological distress. With medically assisted detox, delirium tremens rarely occur at all. If it does, the symptoms of withdrawal delirium and its effects will be both minimized and significantly less widespread.

Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

For those who are poised to detox from alcohol, understanding the typical alcohol withdrawal timeline helps eliminate fear of the unknown. With proper supervision, this process does not have to be excessively uncomfortable or dangerous. It can also be shorter. People who undergo medically assisted detox are often able to move through the most physically challenging parts of this process within just two to four days.

Continuous monitoring is performed all throughout this time and slightly beyond it to ensure that all systems and functions are effectively stabilized. By mitigating and minimizing early withdrawal symptoms, professionals can prevent the body from entering a state of outright panic and potential failure. In fact, the easiest way to manage and prevent delirium tremens is by addressing the symptoms of the first two phases of alcohol withdrawal early on.

With support, most symptoms of physical withdrawal peak at around 48 hours and then gradually abate. Without support, the body and many of its functions can remain distressed for up to three weeks. It’s important to note, however, that the end of physical withdrawal does not indicate the end of the withdrawal process. Post-acute withdrawal symptoms or PAWS are soon to follow.

These are the intense, psychological effects of abstaining, and they can include malaise, depression, anxiety, mood swings, restlessness, aggression, and insomnia among other things. Detox services and rehab programs also have strategies for mitigating the symptoms of PAWS. Various therapies and medical interventions can be used to promote comfort, stress relief, and general mood balance. As the brain gradually adapts to its new normal, patients are taught strategies for safely and healthily managing their moods and their mental health going forward.

If you’re ready to start the detox process and want the help of knowledgeable, qualified professionals, we’re here to provide it. Call 833-991-2955 now to find out more about our medically assisted detox program and our options for inpatient treatment.