Understanding Alcohol Detox: A Guide to Withdrawal Symptoms and Treatment for Safe Recovery

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol addiction, you may be wondering what a detox involves and what symptoms of withdrawal feel like. When you decide to stop drinking, the body begins the detoxification process within hours or days of your last drink. The effects of alcohol vary from person to person, and the same applies to symptoms and severity of alcohol withdrawal. 

In some cases, withdrawal can even be fatal. Seeking professional addiction treatment or entering an alcohol rehab can offer you the support and tools to detox safely and avoid relapse. It’s also important to be aware of what to expect during an alcohol detox, whether inpatient or at home. 

Withdrawal Timeline and Symptoms

In those with alcohol use disorder, the onset and severity of withdrawal symptoms may vary based on factors like physical tolerance to the substance. Generally, withdrawal falls into three categories or stages:

  • Stage 1 – Mild: Symptoms may include mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, jitteriness, headache, nausea, vomiting, and heart palpitations. Stage 1 side effects of withdrawal usually appear within 8-12 hours of your last drink. This detox period may cause physical discomfort for some time, but the symptoms will pass.


  • Stage 2 – Moderate: After Stage 1 symptoms are present, Stage 2 withdrawal usually occurs one to two days after your last alcoholic drink. Symptoms may include increased blood pressure, irregular heart rate, high body temperature, abnormal breathing, confusion, and irritability. Most people who reach Stage 2 usually do not require medical attention, though they may experience more mental and emotional symptoms at this point.


  • Stage 3 – Severe: Symptoms of Stage 2 may still be present, along with seizures, disorientation, impaired attention, and visual or auditory hallucinations. The third stage of withdrawal usually begins around the third day of detox, but it can take up to a week or so for heavy drinkers to reach this point. Delirium tremens, or the shakes, is one of the most commonly known side effects of Stage 3 detox, usually occurring in long-term drinkers who quit suddenly.  

Each situation is different, and everyone’s body responds to the presence and absence of alcohol differently. Some people may experience mild or moderate symptoms for a few days, while others may face severe withdrawal and require medical attention or inpatient treatment. Stage 3, while less common than the other categories of withdrawal, can be dangerous and life-threatening if not properly treated. 

How Alcohol and Withdrawal Work in the Brain

As a depressant, alcohol works on two different chemicals in the brain: gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the brain’s inhibitory chemical, and glutamate, the brain’s excitatory chemical. Alcohol slows brain functioning by increasing GABA and decreasing the amount of glutamate in the brain, causing a person to feel relaxed and less anxious after drinking. 

The brain compensates for these chemical changes by decreasing GABA and increasing glutamate production; this reaction is how the body develops a tolerance to alcohol. Conversely, reducing or stopping your alcohol intake further disrupts the brain’s chemical production, leading to withdrawal symptoms. Though symptoms and severity of withdrawal vary based on the individual, the majority of people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) may experience withdrawal symptoms upon quitting drinking.   

What to Do When Alcohol Use Becomes A Problem

Some people who are struggling with alcohol are aware of their addiction, but for others, the signs may not be so clear. One of the largest indicators of a problem with alcohol is an inability to control when or how much you drink, or not knowing when it is time to stop drinking. You may also notice that your consumption affects your ability to maintain relationships or responsibilities, be they professional, financial, or academic. 

It’s never too late to quit drinking, and in many cases, you can detox from alcohol at home. However, in more severe cases, it’s important to exercise caution and seek professional help if your withdrawal symptoms become severe, click for source to find treatment. If you or someone you know is currently dealing with alcohol addiction, you can visit sites like Detox Local to find a detox program or treatment center near you.