Detox | 4 min read

Alcohol Detox Timeline & Withdrawal Symptoms

Medically Reviewed

Medically Reviewed By

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

On September 4, 2022

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On February 22, 2019

alcohol detox timeline
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Update: the article was updated in May 2019  

Alcohol abuse has been a cultural concern for the past several centuries. During the era of Prohibition, alcohol was considered by many countries to be the root cause of poverty, indecency, and domestic violence. Our concern for its effects in America even led to a constitutional amendment to ban access to it entirely.

As this particular experiment in social behavior demonstrated, forcing determined adults to abstain from alcohol is an ineffective approach to the problem. People would find ways to consume the substance, even if it meant risking life and freedom. Many people died during this time while attempting to obtain their alcohol experience through drinking tainted products. Even now, more than 14 million American adults are engaging in problematic usage of alcohol. So what is it about this substance that makes it so appealing?

The positive experiences of alcohol intoxication are hailed throughout time and history. It has been prescribed as a relaxation agent, a spiritual medium, and even a beneficial element in better heart health. The key factor that is present within these applications, however, is that of moderation. Those who cannot moderate their alcohol intake and ensure that only the benefits are present, can find that they have opened the door to the debilitating side of the substance.

Symptoms of Dependence

Physical dependence upon the presence of alcohol can creep up slowly. As alcohol can easily penetrate the blood-brain barrier that tends to filter other substances, it has a direct line of access to our neurons and our nervous system. Persistent exposure to alcohol can cause permanent damage to important nerve cells, which is then masked by continuing to intoxicate. Users will find themselves needing to have a drink to feel physically normal.

There also exists the danger of psychological dependence. Many who drink utilize the alcohol to relax after a hard day of work or as a means to engage more heartily in social interactions. Through relying on the substance for these experiences, the user doesn’t learn to develop a means of coping outside of the influence. Someone psychologically dependent on alcohol can begin to feel that the drink is needed as a medium for daily functioning.

Overall, one is considered to be dependent upon the effects of alcohol if the user persists in drinking, despite negative physical, psychological, and social consequences surrounding the behavior.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

The first symptoms of alcohol withdrawal involve the infamous hangover. Following a binge of drinking, one can wake up with a headache, queasy stomach, and severe thirst. In addition, the brain may feel foggy, and the user can feel a strong desire to stay asleep.

Due to the damage to neurons and nerve cells that prolonged alcohol usage can cause, withdrawal symptoms can further result in what is commonly referred to as the “shakes.” These symptoms of delirium tremens can range from shaking hands to full-body, seizure-like reactions. The tremors can be accompanied by confusion, profuse sweating, and severe nausea, resulting in an inability to maintain proper fluid levels within the body. The experience of dehydration compounds other symptoms and can result in a life-threatening condition. In severe cases, the user can begin to experience hallucinations and will see or hear things that are not physically present. In addition, the heart rate can increase, and blood pressure can rise to dangerous levels.

There are psychological symptoms of withdrawal, as well. Once abstaining, an alcohol-dependent person can experience intense anxiety and depression. These heightened experiences of psychological distress can increase feelings of stress – and result in the sense of inability to cope – which can tempt the user to return to drinking as a means of escape.

Withdrawal Timeline

The first effects of alcohol withdrawal can occur within the first several hours of having the last drink and include the listed symptoms. For those with only a minor dependence on alcohol, the symptoms are likely to clear up, on their own, within a few days.

For those with a more severe form of alcohol dependence, inpatient treatment may be necessary. In these cases, the initial symptoms are still experienced within the first few days. These symptoms, however, do not subside into relief. A moderate-to-severe dependence on alcohol can produce confusion, severe tremors, and altered perceptions that begin 3-5 days into the withdrawal period.

Current estimates suggest that it can take anywhere from a few months to a year to fully recover from the physical and psychological effects of alcohol dependence. And, even with months of abstinence under the belt, a former drinker can find that they are unable to imbibe the casual drink without experiencing extreme reactions. As with the effects of initial alcohol usage, the ability to successfully engage in moderate drinking following a detoxing period is dependent upon the constitution of an individual.

Alcohol Detox Process

The safest way to undergo alcohol detox is in a medically-supervised facility. Upon admittance to a qualified detox facility, a patient is provided with the medications approved by a physician to alleviate the discomfort associated with alcohol withdrawal. Blood tests will be performed to assess which nutrients the body needs most, and a nutritional plan will be established to replenish those nutrients once the patient is stabilized. Fluids will be administered – intravenously, if necessary – to ensure that the patient remains properly hydrated. Ascendant opened its new medically assisted detox facility in 2018. Located in the heart of Manhattan, within a seven-story brownstone near Central Park, Ascendant has created a unique environment to help people take the first step towards recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. The new facility has been specifically designed to provide a luxurious place of healing that is serene and well-considered to provide the greatest possible comfort during drug and alcohol withdrawal. We also offer NYC outpatient addiction treatment to provide ongoing support and accountability for those who have detoxed and are newly sober.

A proper alcohol detoxification program will also attend to a patient’s emotional and psychological needs. Settings that strive to produce an atmosphere of calm and provide the patient with 24-hour access to care can work to ensure that a patient does not encounter any undue stress in addition to withdrawal. Following a reduction in physical symptoms, a comprehensive treatment plan for after-care should be developed, which will assist the recovering person in adjusting to a new life free from alcohol.

If you or a loved one are seeking addiction treatment in New Jersey or New York, the experienced team at Ascendant is here to help you take the first step. Our New York detox and addiction treatment center help individuals regain control of their lives and build the foundation for lifelong sobriety.

Was this article helpful? Follow our blog for more information about addiction, substance use, and how to get help. Recent posts include topics such as sports drugs and the stages of addiction. 

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Amanda Stevens


Amanda Stevens, B.S.

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. Read more

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