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What Does it Mean to “Taper Off Alcohol?”

Tapering off alcohol is a good way to reduce alcohol consumption without experiencing as much difficulty transitioning to being alcohol-free. However, heavy drinkers face a variety of health risks if they taper off alcohol or stop using alcohol once they’ve developed an addiction.

If you want to stop drinking (or drastically reduce alcohol intake), and you’re a moderate to heavy drinker, a slow reduction is best. If you experience symptoms of withdrawal as you taper off, you should seek medical attention. 

If your body has no issue adjusting to a gradual decrease in alcohol consumption, tapering off makes it easier to break the habit of drinking.

When you taper off, you reduce alcohol consumption slowly. Exactly how this works varies based on your current drinking habits.

For example, maybe enjoy happy hour after work a few times a week. Reducing your attendance by one or more visits the first few weeks and then increasing your absences in the weeks following is tapering off.

If you drink three drinks every day, drinking two drinks a day for a week and then one drink a day for a week is tapering off. The specific process of tapering off is based on how much you currently drink and how much you’d like to drink.

How to Wean Off Alcohol Safely 

It’s important to wean off or taper alcohol use safely. In most cases, it is not safe to do so at home.

Light to moderate drinkers who want to reduce their alcohol consumption can use weaning to ease the burden of breaking social and other habits associated with drinking alcohol. Heavy drinkers, on the other hand, must have medical supervision to ensure safe detox from alcohol.

If it’s safe and you choose to taper alcohol use at home, the following steps help you make a gradual transition:

  1. Reduce the number of drinks you consume per day by one. If you don’t drink every day, reduce the number of drinks you consume on days you drink by one OR reduce the number of days you drink per week by one.
  2. Another option is to increase the length of time between drinks. Anyone can do this, but it’s especially helpful for everyday drinkers. Instead of immediately beginning your next drink, set a timer for a specific period and do not begin your next drink until this time. Some people drink water in between drinks, which makes the process even easier. It rehydrates you and gives you “something to do” so you aren’t just waiting for your next drink.
  3. Commit to the tapering method you choose. Successful tapering requires you to avoid fluctuations and adhere to whatever reduction method you choose. This lets you track your progress and recognize any negative reactions that might occur.
  4. Share your intention to taper off alcohol use with a trusted loved one. This way, someone is there to hold you accountable. 

Tapering works, but it isn’t right for everyone. Alcohol withdrawal is potentially dangerous after abusing alcohol. It can be a fatal process for heavy drinkers. Heavy drinkers, or those with alcohol dependence, who take the risk of tapering off and foregoing professional medical treatment must move slowly to reduce their risk. 

Weaning off alcohol can take weeks or months to do safely and avoid severe withdrawal symptoms.

Best Way to Stop Drinking

The best way to stop drinking, especially for those who are heavy drinkers, is to undergo treatment at an inpatient or outpatient treatment center supervised by a medical professional. This ensures you receive the supervision and medical treatment needed to manage life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. 

Alcohol withdrawal is potentially fatal. Your body will seek homeostasis when you take something from it that it is used to receiving. Sudden alcohol withdrawal is even more serious when you:

  • Are generally in bad health
  • Are older
  • Have co-occurring mental health issue or other co-occurring medical conditions
  • Have binged right before stopping consumption
  • Have poor eating habits
  • Take certain prescription, OTC, or herbal medications or supplements

For those who are light to moderate drinkers who want to taper off, the best way to do so is to avoid going “cold turkey.” Successful breaking of a habit is almost always easier when done gradually.

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What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Drinking?

Despite the risks associated with suddenly denying your body alcohol, there are many benefits, including:

  • Improved sleep
  • Better heart health
  • Improved liver health
  • Reduction in cancer risk
  • More energy

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Shaking
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating and clammy skin
  • Hostility or irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Appetite loss
  • Depression
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)

These symptoms vary from person to person and their severity is based on how long and how much a person drinks.

What are Delirium Tremens (DTs)?

Delirium tremens (DTs) occur when a heavy drinker stops drinking. It’s one of the most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. The condition occurs within 48 to 72 hours after your last drink. DTs are rare and happen only about 5 percent of the time during alcohol withdrawal. 

Symptoms of DTs include:

  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • High blood pressure
  • Racing heart
  • Fever
  • Heavy sweating

Challenges of Cutting Down Alcohol Use

Reducing alcohol use is difficult for many people. Any time you change a habit, even if there is no physical addiction, the process comes with challenges. Some of these challenges include:

  • Managing social situations that involve drinking
  • Peer pressure to drink
  • Finding other activities to fill the time that was previously spent drinking
  • Physical symptoms and discomfort of withdrawal
  • Relapse

How Long Does it Take to Taper Off Alcohol?

The length of time it takes to taper off alcohol use varies based on how heavily a person was drinking before beginning the tapering process. 

Light to moderate drinkers should plan a tapering process of a week or more depending on their current drinking behavior.

Heavier drinkers can taper off faster with medical supervision, but the process still takes weeks or more. The initial detoxification process takes several days.

Dangers of Quitting “Cold Turkey” 

Quitting cold turkey is rarely safe or successful. People who suddenly stop alcohol consumption face risks of withdrawal. There is also a greater risk of relapse when you stop suddenly.

Additionally, there is a higher risk of overdose because of reduced tolerance. Over time, your body builds a tolerance to alcohol and more is required to achieve the same effect. When you stop drinking, this tolerance wanes. 

If you return to drinking the same amount after a period of detox, your risk of consuming too much is high.

How to Prevent Relapse

Preventing relapse after tapering off alcohol use is challenging. It helps to:

  • Understand the triggers that tempt you to drink
  • Change your habits associated with drinking
  • Avoid people you drink with or suggest other activities that don’t involve drinking
  • Anticipate challenges and “bad days” where you’ll need to overcome negative thinking
  • Learn to manage stress without alcohol
  • Seek treatment for co-occurring medical issues
  • Seek out social situations where people don’t focus on drinking
  • Adopt new hobbies that keep you busy as you taper off and recover from heavy drinking and alcohol use disorder (AUD)
  • Create a healthy lifestyle that includes healthy eating and regular exercise
  • Seek formal treatment or attend support group meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Where to Undergo Alcohol Detox

There are several options for people who want to undergo medical detox for alcohol. For example:

  • Inpatient treatment offers residential accommodations and round-the-clock medical supervision.
  • Outpatient treatment is when you live off-premises but receive treatment during the day.
  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHP) is when you live off-premises but receive treatment in a medical facility during the day.

Following detox, both inpatient and outpatient treatment programs are available. Some people also utilize individual and family counseling and 12-step programs.

How to Choose a Program

Choosing a program is challenging, but it’s an important process to ensure you receive the treatment and support needed for a successful recovery. It helps to learn about a treatment program and evaluate the services offered before committing. 

The following questions help you make an informed decision about a treatment program:

  • Do you accept insurance?
  • Is the staff licensed?
  • Is the program medically supervised by a physician?
  • Do you provide a sample of a treatment plan?
  • Does treatment include counseling?
  • Does treatment include medication?
  • What type of relapse support does the program offer?
  • Is aftercare available?

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Resources

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“Alcohol Withdrawal: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” Medlineplus.gov, 2018, https://www.medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000764.htm.

“Delirium Tremens: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” Medlineplus.gov, 2016, https://www.medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000766.htm.

Harvard Health Publishing. “Alcohol Withdrawal - Harvard Health.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health, 22 Apr. 2019, https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/alcohol-withdrawal-a-to-z.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Alcohol Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/evidence-based-approaches-to-drug-addiction-treatment/pharmacotherapies/alcohol.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drug Addiction Treatment in the United States.” https://www.drugabuse.gov, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states.

Trevisan, Louis A, et al. Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal Pathophysiological Insights. Vol. 22, no. 1, 1998, https://www.pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/61-66.pdf.

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