Detoxification (detox) from alcohol varies in length and severity depending on the amount and length of time the alcohol has been consumed. Symptoms will be both mental and physical beginning very shortly after the last drink. Within hours, a heavy drinker will begin to have signs of withdrawal. Those who don't drink as much or as often may not experience withdrawals for a couple days.
Mild symptoms produce shaking, hand tremors, headaches, nausea and night sweats. If no alcohol is consumed, the symptoms will pass within a week. The compulsion, or mental obsession, may last for a lot longer, which is why so many alcoholics turn to long-term recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). After the physical symptoms pass, the only way to avoid drinking again is to find some way to deal with the underlying issues that caused the drinking in the first place.
Heavy drinkers may feel like they have flu-like symptoms for as long as a month after taking the last drink. Initially, the life-threatening withdrawal symptoms pass in a week to 10 days. The threat of hallucinations, convulsions and seizure becomes increasingly lessened with each day you refrain from drinking. Remorse, regret, guilt and self-loathing may be quite strong for a year or more, during which time anti-depressants can be useful.
Delirium tremens (DTs) can begin within 3 to 5 days after an alcoholic quits drinking. People who drink heavily on a daily basis should be hospitalized so that doctors can monitor for the DTs, which appear as confusion, hyperactivity and extreme blood pressure hikes. There is no cure for the DTs, and patients must be monitored for a possible heart attack. DTs can last for 1 to 5 days.
For some drinkers, the urge to drink again is removed, and once they find other coping mechanisms, they experience little long-term effects. Short-term solutions are available to help the former drinker overcome the extreme cravings that may last for a year or more. Drugs such as Antabuse and ReVia can assist with the cravings. Antabuse makes you sick if you drink while taking it. ReVia and Depade can help to lessen the severity of the cravings without the same side effects.
While the withdrawal symptoms may disappear completely within a few weeks, the psychological withdrawal may last for years for some people. The desire to drink can return at every new event you face sober. Weekends, holidays and other special occasions can trigger a strong craving to drink that cannot be overcome without assistance. Traumatic events such as job loss or death of a loved one can bring on a bout of depression that may push the alcoholic to drink again. Long-term recovery requires either continued therapy or participation in a group such as AA.