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Updated on September 14, 2023
6 min read

Detoxing From Alcohol Addiction: What to Expect

Alcohol addiction, formally called alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic, relapsing brain disorder.

People who suffer from AUD are impaired from being able to stop alcohol consumption despite efforts to do so voluntarily. When someone decides to stop drinking, withdrawal symptoms and intense alcohol cravings can arise.

Even when some attempt to quit drinking, withdrawal symptoms can be overwhelming (both mentally and physically). 

What is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS)?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is a clinical condition primarily in alcohol-dependent individuals. It develops within 6 to 24 hours after sudden discontinuation or decreased alcohol consumption. 

Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and dangerous. As such, you should always detox under the supervision of professionals at a licensed treatment center. 

Common Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from one individual to the next. Some symptoms experienced during withdrawal include:

  • Tremors (delirium tremens in severe cases)
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Tachycardia (rapid heart rate) 
  • Hyperthermia (irregularly high body temperature can cause heat-related conditions)
  • High blood pressure 
  • Irritability 
  • Mood swings
  • Jumpiness or shakiness 
  • Headaches 
  • Hallucinations

Many people choose to continue drinking alcohol to combat any negative feelings that come with withdrawal. However, alcohol only relieves negative feelings temporarily. Symptoms of withdrawal often worsen during the next period of abstinence.  

Is Itching a Potential Indicator of AWS?

Another potential indicator of alcohol withdrawal is itching. Alcohol withdrawal itching is a condition experienced by some people who abruptly stop drinking after excessive consumption.10 

It presents an uncontrollable urge to scratch the skin, resulting in inflammation and irritation. This withdrawal symptom often appears within the first 24 hours after ceasing alcohol consumption and can last up to several weeks.10


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What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?

Long-term alcohol users expose their brains to alcohol so often that the brain sometimes adjusts to compensate for the sedating effect of the chemicals.

An alcoholic’s brain produces serotonin and norepinephrine in higher quantities. As a result, they can become more dependent on the higher levels than a non-alcoholic’s brain does. 

If a person stops drinking suddenly, their brain may begin functioning abnormally. This is because the brain isn’t getting the necessary level of chemicals.

Alcohol Detox Timeline 

Stopping alcohol consumption can cause the body to experience different stages of detoxification and withdrawal.

It’s important to understand that while these are general guidelines, people may experience physical symptoms up to 10 days after the last drink. 

Stage 1 — 6 Hours

Withdrawal symptoms begin to appear within 6 hours of the last drink. These symptoms tend to be mild. 

Mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Minor tremors (alcohol ‘shakes’)
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Clammy feeling
  • Mild sensitivity to light and sounds
  • Minor headache
  • Mild itching

Stage 2 — 6 to 12 Hours

Symptoms will gradually intensify.

You may experience symptoms like tremors or tachycardia. Tachycardia is a condition where the heart beats over 100 beats per minute. Other symptoms can include nausea and vomiting.

Stage 3 — 24 to 48 Hours

At this point of withdrawal, depending on the severity of alcohol addiction, individuals may transition to a period known as alcoholic hallucinosis. Auditory, visual, and tactile disturbances characterize this stage. 

Examples of withdrawal-related hallucinations could include:

  • Sensitivity to light or hallucinations
  • Intensified harshness or fear of sounds
  • A feeling of pins and needles or numbness

In more severe cases, these symptoms can lead to paranoia and agitation. Seizures may also occur during the withdrawal process.

For those suffering from minor withdrawal, symptoms may peak 18 to 24 hours after the last drink and decrease 4 to 5 days later. 

Stage 4 — 48 to 72 Hours

During this time frame, some people experience delirium tremens (DTs), a severe medical emergency that causes severe physical and psychological symptoms.

Like alcohol hallucinosis (AH), people with DTs will show agitation and hallucinations.

The main difference between DTs and AH is disorientation. Those with DTs become disoriented and risk unintentionally injuring themselves or healthcare staff. 

DTs are the severest of all symptoms that manifest during detox. It’s been reported that DTs can occur 7 to 10 days after the last drink. 

Symptoms of DTs include:

  • Elevated body temperature
  • Paranoia
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations (auditory/visual)
  • Constant nausea and/or vomiting
  • Irritability and anger
  • Panic attacks
  • Drenching sweats

You are at a greater risk of experiencing DTs if you:

  • Have liver function issues
  • Have low potassium or sodium levels
  • Have a low platelet count
  • Are older
  • Are using other drugs or substances
  • Are severely dehydrated
  • Have a history of delirium tremens
  • Have brain lesions
  • Have a history of seizures

Stage 5 — 72 Hours

This stage is when the severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms is highest.


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Medications for Managing Withdrawal Symptoms

As it stands, the FDA has approved three medications to treat alcohol addiction. These medications include:


This drug helps to block opioid receptors that influence both cravings and the rewarding effects of alcohol consumption. It may decrease the risk of relapse to heavy drinking. 

Naltrexone also primarily helps people not to resume drinking once they have completed the withdrawal process.9 However, genetic differences may affect the efficacy of the drug. 

Acamprosate (Campral®)

This drug is recommended for those who suffer from more severe addictions. It may prove somewhat effective in minimizing symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, and dysphoria (sensations of unhappiness or unease).

Disulfiram (Antabuse®)

This medication can fight chronic alcoholism by causing unpleasant effects whenever alcohol is consumed. Flushing of the face, headaches, nausea, and irregular heartbeat are some of the many effects that will discourage drinking.

Other Discoveries

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) is exploring other breakthrough medications to treat alcohol dependence.4

One particular drug, Topiramate, has shown promising results thus far in large clinical trials. The anti-epileptic drug has helped some individuals reduce drinking, especially those with certain genetic makeups.4


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How to Safely Detox From Alcohol

Anyone undergoing alcohol detox should do so under the supervision of medical professionals. 

In severe cases, this occurs at an inpatient treatment center. In less-severe cases, it happens at an outpatient treatment center. Alcohol addiction treatment is the most effective way to overcome and abstain from alcohol long-term.  

At an inpatient facility, patients live there throughout treatment. They receive 24/7 supervised care from professionals, doctors, and therapists. These programs last between 30 and 90 days.

Detox is the first step in recovery. For many, it’s the most challenging phase but also one of the most important. 


Sudden discontinuation of alcohol consumption can lead to relapse and make future attempts to quit much more difficult. 

If you believe you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, seek professional medical care to receive proper treatment and guidance.

While overcoming addiction is never easy, there are many resources, specialists, therapies, and support groups to lead you on a path to recovery.

Updated on September 14, 2023
11 sources cited
Updated on September 14, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020.
  2. “Are Night Sweats a Normal Part of Drinking Alcohol?” Alcoholics Anonymous, 2016.
  3. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020.
  4. “Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020.
  5. “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health – Full Report.”, Publications and Digital Products, 2016.
  6. “Alcohol Withdrawal.” Harvard Health.
  7. “Delirium Tremens: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2020.
  8. Mirijello et al. “Identification and Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” Drugs, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015.
  9. “Naltrexone.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2023.
  10. Liu et al. “The effects of alcohol and drug abuse on the skin.” Clin Dermatol, 2010.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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