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Tapering Off Alcohol

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What Does it Mean to Taper Off Alcohol?

When someone decides to reduce their drinking and get sober, two different options are available:

  1. Quitting suddenly
  2. Tapering off

While quitting suddenly (cold turkey) is self-explanatory, tapering may raise some doubts. 

Tapering refers to gradually reducing the consumption of a substance to diminish the intensity of withdrawal symptoms.

For alcohol, this means drinking less and less over time to avoid the symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal

Tapering may be a suitable option for people who:

  • Consume alcohol on a moderate basis (1-2 drinks per day for men, 1 for women)
  • Are worried about drinking habits and wish to cut down
  • Count on a healthy emotional support system, such as friends or family, throughout this process

However, tapering is not recommended for people with AUD. In this situation, tapering may lead to relapse, overdose, and serious health consequences. 

It's important to remember that any concerns about drinking alcohol should be discussed with a medical professional.

Pros of Tapering Down Alcohol Intake

Some of the advantages of tapering include:

Decreased risk of AUD

Binge drinking and heavy drinking are associated with a higher risk of alcohol use disorder. 

Improved immune system

Excessive drinking can weaken the immune system, increasing the body’s likelihood of developing an infection.

Diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis are more frequent in individuals who chronically drink.  

Decreased risk of alcohol-related death

Alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of mortality in the United States, with approximately 95,000 people dying from alcohol-related causes each year. 

Saved costs and time

Inpatient treatment may be an expensive option in terms of time and money.

However, with tapering, people can maintain their everyday lives while improving their drinking habits step by step. 

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Cons of Tapering Down Alcohol Intake

Some disadvantages of tapering include:

Unsupervised medical care

People who try tapering off don't have the guided support of medical professionals who have knowledge and experience of such matters. This makes it more difficult to stick to a long-term plan.

It doesn't always work

Some find that tapering is not a suitable option to stop drinking. This may prove discouraging and underlie a deeper problem, such as weak support groups or stronger alcohol dependence. 

Is it Better to Taper Off Alcohol or Quit “Cold Turkey?”

For those who moderately consume alcohol, tapering off may be a good option.  

Some ways they can do this include:

  • Choosing a "weaker" drink (lower alcohol content)
  • Drinking a glass of water after each alcoholic beverage 
  • Gradually cutting down the overall number of drinks 

For those who have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), neither quitting cold turkey nor tapering alone is advisable.

People who try to taper off an alcohol addiction run the risk of relapse, leading to excessive drinking, possible overdose, and a more profound addiction. 

In any case, it's always best to speak with a healthcare provider. Every person has unique needs, and tapering off may not be an adequate solution to reduce or stop drinking

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Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms: Side Effects of Tapering

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are more likely in heavy drinkers. Withdrawal usually begins within 6 to 8 hours after the last drink and peaks within 72 hours.

Common symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty thinking straight
  • Irritability

Less common symptoms may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Migraines
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Clammy skin
  • Sweating
  • Loss of appetite

The most severe symptom of withdrawal is delirium tremens (DTs). This is a life-threatening condition that occurs in 3 to 5 percent of cases.

DTs can cause seizures, agitation, disorientation, fever, and hallucinations.

It's critical that anyone who experiences DT's is supervised by a medical professional.

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How to Safely Taper Off Alcohol (Medical Detox)

People with mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms may benefit from outpatient rehabilitation, combined with safe tapering.

Examples include those:

  • Who lack a history of severe withdrawal symptoms, withdrawal seizures, or DTs
  • Without multiple prior detoxifications and who have a healthy, reliable support system
  • Without psychiatric or medical illness connected with drinking habits in some form
  • With recent excessive drinking 
  • Who are pregnant

In general, outpatient treatment is a safe and effective alternative to inpatient care, with fewer costs. 

However, healthcare providers should consider optimal care treatment on a case-by-case basis.

Additional Treatment Options

Addiction treatment options for AUD or more severe withdrawal symptoms may include:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT treatment can help people with AUD explore the reasons for certain drinking habits and reinforce positive changes in behavior and decision-making processes.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

Providers may prescribe medications such as benzodiazepines to reduce the effects of alcohol withdrawal.

Benzodiazepines affect the central nervous system (CNS) and can prevent combativeness, hallucinations, and agitation.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Feelings of loneliness and isolation can make it difficult to overcome addiction.

Mutual support groups like AA can provide a strong support network for those in addiction treatment for alcohol misuse.

If you or a loved one are considering quitting alcohol or changing your drinking habits, it is important to seek medical advice.

A healthcare provider can evaluate your case and determine what treatment program is most suitable for you.

Updated on April 7, 2022
6 sources cited
  1. Alcohol Facts and Statistics.National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Oct. 2020.
  2. Alcohol Withdrawal - What Is It?Harvard Health, Harvard Health Publishing, Apr. 2019.
  3. Alcohol's Effects on the Body.National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  4. Rethinking Drinking Homepage - NIAAA.National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  5. Weintraub, Steven J. “Diazepam in the Treatment of Moderate to Severe Alcohol Withdrawal.CNS Drugs, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017.
  6. Wilson, Emma, and Malcolm Lader. “A Review of the Management of Antidepressant Discontinuation Symptoms.” Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, vol. 5, no. 6, 2015, pp. 357–368.

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