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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 questions. 

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

Who Should Taper Off Alcohol?

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 their drinking habits and wish to cut down
  • Have a healthy emotional support system, such as friends or family, to be there for them

Tapering is not recommended for people with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). In this situation, tapering may lead to relapse, overdose, and serious health consequences. 

Concerns about tapering off alcohol should be discussed with a medical professional.

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4 Pros of Tapering Down Alcohol Intake

Some of the advantages of tapering include:

1. Decreased Risk of AUD

Binge and heavy drinking are associated with a higher risk of AUD. Tapering down alcohol intake can decrease your risk of developing an addiction.

2. 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.  

3. 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. 

4. Saved Costs and Time

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

Unlike inpatient treatment, tapering allows people to maintain their lifestyles while improving their drinking habits. 

3 Cons of Tapering Down Alcohol Intake

Some disadvantages of tapering include:

1. Insurance Can Help Pay for Addiction Treatment

Sometimes, tapering isn’t enough to help reduce alcohol intake. Many insurance companies will help pay for some or all of the treatment costs, which may be vital to recovery. 

2. Unsupervised Medical Care

People who try tapering off alcohol won’t have the guided support of medical professionals that they would at inpatient treatment. This can make it more challenging to stick to a long-term plan.

3. It Doesn't Always Work

Some find that tapering is not a suitable option to stop drinking. For many people, tapering alone is not enough to help heal their addiction.

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How to Safely Taper Off Alcohol 

Medical Detox

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

Outpatient Treatment and Tapering

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

Examples of people who may benefit from outpatient treatment and tapering 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

Outpatient treatment is a safe and effective alternative to inpatient care, with fewer costs.  

Tapering Independently

There are a few ways to taper your alcohol consumption without therapy. If you believe your alcohol intake is mild to moderate, you may consider a few options:

  • Choosing a "weaker" drink with lower alcohol content
  • Drinking a glass of water after each alcoholic beverage 
  • Gradually cutting down the overall number of drinks 
  • Keeping track of your drinks daily, weekly, and monthly

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Call now to speak with a specialist about your insurance benefits.

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

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

However, for people with an AUD, quitting cold turkey or tapering is not advisable.

Trying to simply taper off an alcohol addiction runs the risk of: 

  • Relapse
  • Excessive drinking
  • Possible overdose
  • Health concerns
  • More profound addiction 

It's always best to speak with a healthcare provider when changing your relationship with alcohol. Every person has unique needs, and tapering off may not be an adequate solution to reduce or stop drinking

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.

Delirium Tremens (DTs)

Alcohol withdrawal is potentially fatal. When alcohol is suddenly taken away from an addict, seizures and delirium tremens (DTs) can occur. 

DTs is a life-threatening condition that occurs in 3 to 5 percent of cases.

Symptoms of DTs include:

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

A medical professional must supervise anyone who experiences DTs when lowering alcohol intake.

Other Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal

Sudden alcohol withdrawal can also be dangerous if you:

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

Common Symptoms of Sudden Alcohol Withdrawal

Some of the most common symptoms that people who are going through sudden alcohol withdrawal experience are:

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

Less Common Symptoms of Sudden Alcohol Withdrawal

Some less common symptoms of sudden alcohol withdrawal include, but are not limited to:

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

How Long Does it Take to Taper Off Alcohol?

The time it takes to taper off alcohol varies based on how heavily a person drinks. 

Light to moderate drinkers should plan to taper for a week or more.

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

Challenges of Cutting Down Alcohol Use

Reducing alcohol use is difficult for many users. Some of these challenges include:

  • Managing social situations that involve drinking
  • Peer pressure to drink
  • Finding other activities that don’t involve drinking
  • Physical symptoms and discomfort of withdrawal
  • Relapsing

How to Prevent Relapse

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

  • Understand your triggers
  • Change your habits associated with drinking
  • Avoid people who peer pressure you
  • Anticipate challenges and “bad days” where you’ll need to overcome negative thinking
  • Learn to manage stress without alcohol
  • Seek treatment for coexisting medical issues
  • Seek out social situations where people don’t focus on drinking
  • Adopt new hobbies that keep you busy 
  • Create a healthy lifestyle that includes a better diet and regular exercise
  • Attend support group meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

3 Additional Treatment Options for AUD

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

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 the treatment program that is most suitable for you.

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Updated on August 23, 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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