What Does it Mean to Taper Off Alcohol?

Alcohol withdrawal is often felt when one tries to decrease intake. In some cases, there is a risk of deadly withdrawal symptoms, and tapering off rather than quitting alcohol cold turkey is a much safer choice. This guide reviews pros and cons of tapering.

Tapering off alcohol is the act of slowly reducing alcohol intake until a person becomes completely abstinent. Tapering off alcohol to reduces potential withdrawal symptoms and decreases the likelihood of a potentially fatal withdrawal from alcohol in individuals who consume alcohol on a regular basis.

If you start to experience significant withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking, a taper can provide a much safer method to detox from alcohol. Tapering can be done by using alcohol itself or various medications; however, can only be done safely under the supervision of a physician.

Benzodiazepines are the most common medications physicians use to taper alcohol and reduce withdrawal symptoms. Before a doctor begins a tapering plan with medications, they will assess the medical stability, including vital sign stability, and pattern of withdrawal symptoms in the patient.

With the goal of keeping the patient stable and minimizing withdrawal symptoms, the physician will slowly guide a reduction in benzodiazepines until the patient no longer needs the medication and no longer has alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

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

The phrase cold turkey refers to abruptly stopping drug or alcohol use. Typically, when a person thinks about the word tapering they think of tapering off medications like opioids. The same process can be applied to tapering off alcohol. With that being said, tapering is a lot safer than going cold turkey. Although going cold turkey on opioids is dangerous and can cause significant withdrawal symptoms, quitting alcohol cold turkey can be fatal.

The reason for weaning off alcohol instead of quitting cold turkey is to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms. If a person abruptly stops drinking alcohol within 6 to 8 hours they will experience hyperactivity, anxiety, tremors, sweating, nausea, and confusion. Seizures are another complication of abruptly quitting alcohol that may occur within the first 12 to 48 hours of stopping.

Hallucinations, typically tactile like feeling something is crawling on your skin, can develop which can be very scary and usually lasts 5 to 6 days. Also, a severe medical condition known as delirium tremens (DT) can occur and typically happens after 48 hours of stopping alcohol use. Without the proper supervision of a physician provider, DTs can result in death.

Dangers of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

Stopping alcohol use abruptly can be very dangerous. There are various dangers associated with stopping alcohol use cold turkey. First, DT can lead to a person becoming functionally disabled or even dying. DTs are a sudden and severe mental or nervous system change that alters a person’s breathing, circulation, and temperature control.

Symptoms of DTs occur 48 to 96 hours after a person had their final drink. DTs can cause a person to become disoriented, fearful, extremely agitated, and even experience hallucinations and paranoia.

Abruptly stopping alcohol intake after prolonged heavy drinking can also result in alcohol withdrawal seizures. These seizures can originate anywhere in the brain  and may be deadly. Seizures typically occur 12 to 48 hours after a person has their last drink. DTs and seizures are usually associated with severe alcohol withdrawal which can occur in individuals who consume high amounts of alcohol.

Further, the severity of withdrawal symptoms can cause a person to resort back to drinking alcohol to relieve any symptoms. However, doing so without the guidance of a physician, can complicate tapering and ultimately delay when, if ever, sobriety is reached.

Pros and Cons of Tapering Down Alcohol Intake

Even if tapering off alcohol consumption is known to be safer than quitting cold turkey, there are still some considerations you need to understand when trying this method. Below are the pros and cons of tapering off:

Pros of Alcohol Tapering

  • A safer method of detoxing from alcohol
  • The lesser intensity of withdrawal symptoms
  • Better control of cravings
  • Potentially smaller chance of relapse

Cons of Alcohol Tapering

  • Difficult to execute on your own if you are unsure of your recent alcohol intake
  • Risk of relapse when done incorrectly
  • The slower process of detoxification
  • Not guaranteed to be safe without the supervision of a physician

The best way to taper off alcohol is to find healthcare professionals who can assess one’s current intake. This will be the basis of the protocol to taper off the substance to increase the chances of success.

How To Safely Taper Off Alcohol

How to taper off alcohol? When coming off drugs or alcohol tapering is the best way to prevent severe withdrawal symptoms. Tapering is the act of gradually reducing alcohol use until completely abstinent. By creating a schedule to monitor your alcohol use you can see just how much of the substance you are drinking.

Making a schedule to slowly reduce your alcohol intake is a safe way to taper off the substance. This will ensure that you are not quitting cold turkey which could result in severe and debilitating  withdrawal symptoms or even death. Depending on how much alcohol you’ve been consuming, it can take days or over a week to gradually reduce your dose safely and get off alcohol.

Another strategy for a successful taper is to drink just enough to keep the tremors and other withdrawal symptoms at bay. If you find it is difficult to prevent yourself from drinking too much and getting drunk, locking your alcohol up in a cabinet and giving your friend or family member the key can help. Although with this method, it is important that the friend or family member is accessible when symptoms of withdrawals such as tremors return. Also, learn to cope with and avoid situations that might cause you to want to drink more.

A final strategy to assist with an alcohol taper is to get a good network of peer support. Peer support is beneficial to help you taper off alcohol because it has been proven to increase self-esteem, confidence, positive feelings of accomplishment, increase your ability to cope with challenges that arise as a result of alcohol use, and increase your chances of recovering from alcohol abuse.

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or sober living houses can help you get connected with peers who are going through the same journey as you are. This is a 12 step intervention for alcohol abuse and addiction that can help lead to recovery from alcohol abuse. Sober living houses provide mutual sobriety support to help you remain alcohol-free.

Common Withdrawal Symptoms

Whichever method one chooses when detoxing from alcohol and drugs, withdrawal symptoms will expectedly occur. The advantage of tapering off alcohol is that these symptoms are less intense and will not be as risky as stopping alcohol use abruptly. Below, you will find a list of the common withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Restlessness
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

These symptoms may be all felt simultaneously in varying intensities during the detox process. Mentally preparing oneself on what discomforts to expect helps in going past the challenges of recovering from alcohol addiction.

Challenges of Cutting Down on Alcohol Intake

For some people who consume alcohol, tapering just doesn’t work. Maybe they don’t have peer support or maybe their alcohol addiction is too severe. Being surrounded by triggers can make it extremely difficult to stay on track and avoid overdoing it on alcohol.

There are two types of triggers that can set off a person’s urge to drink. These are internal or external triggers. External triggers are people, places, things, or times that offer opportunities to drink and remind a person of alcohol. Internal triggers are thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations that cause a person to drink. Being exposed to either form of a trigger can result in unwanted relapse.

If a person finds their alcohol addiction is too severe, they may have alcohol use disorder (AUD). It is estimated that over 18 million Americans may have AUD. AUD is when drinking causes a person distress and harm yet the person continues to drink and can range from mild to severe depending on the person’s symptoms. AUD causes intense cravings, loss of control, and a negative emotional state. Someone who has an AUD will find it next to impossible to taper off alcohol on their own.

Aside from unavoidable triggers, tapering off alcohol can also have side effects which can be difficult to manage at home.

Side Effects of Tapering

  • Intermittent alcohol cravings: Since one will not be drinking to the point of intoxication, frequent cravings may be expected during the tapering process.
  • Mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms: Although withdrawal symptoms are not as life-threatening as quitting cold turkey, there will still be uncomfortable bodily symptoms that may warrant medical care. The ability to function for day-to-day tasks may also be challenging especially in the earlier days.
  • Mental and emotional symptoms: There will also be mental and emotional barricades if one is trying to overcome alcohol addiction. Those who try to taper off alcohol use may feel distressed, anxious, or depressed when they cannot get the amount of relief they need from alcohol especially during the initial stages.

Medications Used When Tapering Off Alcohol

Aside from decreasing alcohol intake, there are some medications that healthcare professionals use during a formal detox. It is advised not to take these medications on your own, but rather find a treatment center that offers the right dosage and supervision to avoid complications and risk for dependency.

Benzodiazepines

Sedatives such as benzodiazepines are commonly used to avoid seizures and tremors which are caused by alcohol withdrawal. They are taken to calm down the nervous system, and taken as a first-line of medication. The common benzodiazepines taken are chlordiazepoxide and diazepam.

Anticonvulsants

If a patient under withdrawal has a history of seizures or is prone to experiencing seizures during withdrawal, another medication that may be given is anticonvulsants. This type of drug decreases neuron excitability to reduce the risk of seizures.

Barbiturates

Another type of drug that can be used during alcohol withdrawal is barbiturates. Some cases of alcohol addiction and withdrawal symptoms are resistant to benzodiazepines and anticonvulsants. Barbiturates serve as an alternative medication for such cases although their use in alcohol withdrawal is much less common than benzodiazepines.

Finding An Alcohol Rehab

In 2011, 21.6 million people needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol problem but only 2 million received treatment. Treatment is the best way to ensure long-term abstinence from alcohol. This is especially true if you are suffering from an alcohol use disorder. Addiction alters the chemical balance in a person’s brain, making it extremely difficult to quit drinking alcohol on one’s own.

A high-quality rehab is well equipped to provide you or a loved one with the tools you need to overcome your addiction. Rehab clinics provide medications to ease withdrawal symptoms as well as behavioral therapy to alter a person’s thoughts towards alcohol consumption.

At a rehab clinic, an alcohol withdrawal taper can be provided to slowly get you back to normal life. This form of tapering would likely involve medications to eliminate withdrawal symptoms. Slowly, to reduce the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms, you will come off the medication with the goal being complete abstinence from alcohol.

Sources

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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