When Does Alcohol Withdrawal Start? Understand Dangers and Symptoms

detox from alcohol

Alcohol is one of the most accessible addictive substances, given its wide availability throughout the United States. Unfortunately, alcohol addiction and misuse are prevalent. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, one in five adults in Colorado report drinking excessively. Statistics indicate that five people die every day from alcohol misuse. 

It can be challenging to distinguish between alcohol addiction and social drinking. Many Americans are at risk of developing addiction due to various societal, environmental, and genetic factors. Those who suffer from alcohol misuse typically face a myriad of other issues, pushing them towards alcoholism to take their mind away from legal problems, relationship breakdowns, and more. It’s tough to seek help, but abstaining from alcohol can feel impossible. To make things more complicated, withdrawing from alcohol can be incredibly dangerous when not done correctly. 

What is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Before diving into alcohol withdrawal, we must first understand what leads to alcohol addiction. Alcohol use disorder or AUD is the medical diagnosis for a severe drinking problem, impacting as many as 16 million people in the US. Addiction quickly takes over a person’s life, getting in the way of their performance at work or school, harming their relationships, disrupting dynamics, and destroying their health.

When someone tries to stop misusing alcohol, they may start experiencing alcohol withdrawal. It is in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders as alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which bears the same symptoms as a hangover. Not many people know that a hangover is a sign of withdrawal, as they usually associate it with a heavy night of drinking.

When Does Alcohol Withdrawal Start?

Addiction prevention advocates, counselors, and psychologists highlight the severity of alcohol withdrawal to determine AUD or alcohol dependence. However, it can be difficult to pinpoint when the symptoms start.

Alcohol has numerous toxins and compounds that harm the human body. Once alcohol is ingested, the body starts processing these toxins, which help create a euphoric feeling known as being drunk. When you drink high amounts of alcohol regularly, your brain chemistry begins to change to combat the substance’s sedative effects. Once you stop drinking, your brain is more vulnerable to overstimulation, resulting in physical and mental health symptoms called alcohol withdrawal.

It often starts once an individual has halted or tempered their regular drinking. According to Harvard Medical School, if your body has gotten used to heavy, long-term alcohol consumption, you may experience the following timeline:

  • 12 to 24 hours after your last drink: You will start experiencing hallucinations or perceiving, sensing, and feeling things that aren’t there. This may last up to two days or longer.
  • 24 to 48 hours: At this point, you may start experiencing withdrawal-related seizures.
  • Three days to a week: You may experience delirium tremens at this time, which is a severe side effect of alcohol that typically requires treatment in an intensive care unit. It causes dehydration, high blood pressure, a rapid heartbeat, and less blood flow to your brain. You’ll experience symptoms of angry or nervous behavior, disturbed sleep, loss of consciousness, confusion, and hallucinations. Fortunately, only 5 percent of people who experience alcohol withdrawal undergo this, but it kills up to 1 in 20 people who develop the condition. However, five days after your last drink, symptoms start to improve.

What are Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

Withdrawal symptoms can be painful and uncomfortable. They include the following:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tremors
  • Insomnia
  • A faster heart rate
  • Higher than normal blood pressure

In severe cases, symptoms can include seizures, hallucinations, and even death. Withdrawal is the body’s response to rehabilitating itself after processing the toxins found in alcoholic beverages. The symptoms vary in severity and intensity depending on a wide range of factors, which is why it is crucial to speak to a specialist, a detox center, or a doctor to undergo alcohol withdrawal safely. 

Alcohol Withdrawal symptoms
Alcohol Withdrawal

These symptoms depend on numerous factors. A moderate social drinker may experience only some of these symptoms from time to time. Some people who drink alcohol on occasion do not experience hangovers or withdrawal symptoms at all. The key is to drink plenty of water and drink on a full stomach, which will prevent some of the more severe withdrawal symptoms. However, the case for long-term heavy drinkers is different, as these symptoms can be deadly due to prolonged exposure to the toxins in alcohol.

What are Other Steps of Withdrawal to Be Expected When Detoxing from Alcohol?

When you stop drinking, your body starts healing itself from the toxins found in alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows down your central nervous system (CNS), significantly affecting brain functionality. When someone stops drinking or substantially cuts down on their consumption, alcohol withdrawal symptoms may start mild but progress rapidly, causing death.

The withdrawal process tends to vary from person to person, as various factors contribute to the severity of the symptoms. The type of alcohol consumed, such as beer versus hard liquor, the amount consumed, diet, and hydration all play a role in how bad the withdrawal will be. For example, if you don’t drink water and knock down ten shots of vodka on an empty stomach, you’ll likely experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. 

Unfortunately, those who have grappled with alcohol dependence for many years are at high risk of brain damage and loss of life throughout the withdrawal process. Mitigating this risk requires proper addiction treatment programs like admittance to a rehabilitative program. Physicians help speed this along by including intravenous support to fill the body with vitamins, extended hospitalization, and monitoring of vitals.

What are the Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Although it is important to stop using alcohol as soon as possible, it is even more crucial to do it correctly. Long-term use of alcohol can cause alcohol withdrawal so severe that it can result in brain damage and death. For this reason, monitoring alcohol withdrawal is essential since it can help specialists and doctors treat alcohol dependence and use disorders. In fact, a medically supervised detox from alcohol is necessary due to the life-threatening complications that may otherwise occur. 

Apart from the withdrawal symptoms mentioned earlier, more extreme symptoms can include withdrawal seizures, delirium treatments, status epilepticus, and hallucinations. Many other health issues may also accompany AUD due to continued misuse, like cancer, heart disease, liver disease, anxiety, and depression.

It is very dangerous to attempt to withdraw from alcohol by yourself, especially if you are a long-term heavy drinker. If you intend to seek rehabilitation from alcohol misuse or dependence, it is crucial to consult a doctor first and find out what the best road to recovery will be for you. 


Stopping alcohol consumption is a vital step towards full rehabilitation and eventual sobriety. However, alcohol withdrawal syndrome can complicate the recovery process, as it often contains uncomfortable, painful, and even life-threatening symptoms when not treated correctly. By understanding the nature of alcohol withdrawal and working with professionals, you can safely help yourself or a loved one go through the process.