Tapering Off Alcohol

several different size alcoholic drinks on table

Tapering is the practice of slowly reducing regular consumption of a substance, like alcohol. Tapering can help a person avoid uncomfortable and sometimes deadly symptoms of withdrawal.

Tapering off alcohol is a reasonable strategy for anyone who desires to stop drinking. A taper can be especially helpful for those who find they cannot stop drinking without experiencing negative symptoms.

Minor symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can start as soon as 24 to 36 hours after the last drink of alcohol. Once they appear, symptoms may continue for three to seven days.

Psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Jumpiness or shakiness
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares
  • Unclear thinking

Physical withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Fast heart rate
  • Insomnia (sleeping trouble)
  • Low appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pallor, or unhealthy pale appearance
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sweating or clammy skin
  • Tremors

People with a severe addiction to alcohol may experience delirium tremens (DT), which is a potentially deadly form of alcohol withdrawal that affects people who drank heavy amounts of alcohol for months or years.

Symptoms begin 48 hours after the last drink of alcohol and may include:

  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Severe agitation
  • Severe confusion
  • Tremors

If you or someone you know is experiencing DT, call 911 because DT is considered a medical emergency. Symptoms of DT can be fatal and a person going through them should have medical support in a hospital or rehab facility.

How To Taper Off Alcohol

While the safest way to taper is with professional help in a detox facility, this may not be an option for everyone. A person may need to detox at home for many reasons, including cost, time or perhaps their symptoms are mild.

The support and informational group HAMS (harm reduction, abstinence, and moderation support) have self-tapering methods available on their website for those wanting to take a harm reduction approach.

If you stop drinking alcohol and do not experience withdrawal symptoms, you probably do not need to taper. But if you stop drinking alcohol and within 24 hours start experiencing the early signs of withdrawal (e.g., sweating or tremoring) tapering may be needed.

Some tips for those considering an alcohol taper:

  • Use beer or another option with low alcohol content first, regardless of the normal drink of choice. This process can allow your body to adapt to receiving smaller amounts of alcohol.
  • Know how many drinks you consume per day before you start the taper (for example, 12 ounces of 5% beer is one drink). Knowing allows you to better track progress.
  • Maintain a healthy diet with lots of B vitamins (especially thiamine/B1) because alcohol makes it hard for the body to absorb vitamins.
  • Stay hydrated with water or a sports drink.
  • Reduce the amount of alcohol consumed every day. Don’t stay at the same amount for multiple days.

Direct Taper

A direct taper means drinking the regular substance of choice, but lowering the amount of it that’s consumed every day. A direct taper might not work well for some people. Someone should only direct taper if their drink of choice is beer with a low alcohol percentage.

If the drink of choice is liquor, it is difficult to measure amounts and is easy to binge drink. If the drink is a mixed drink, it can contain sugar or other additives that should not be included in the taper and may worsen the effects of withdrawal symptoms.

Substitution Taper

A substitution taper can involve substituting a prescription drug for alcohol or substituting for another alcoholic drink, like tapering off hard alcohol with beer.

Substituting a prescription drug for alcohol should only happen with the help of a medical professional. No one should ever attempt a substitution taper with prescription medication unless their doctor specifically prescribed it for that purpose in a medical detox program.

The second situation refers to counting the drinks you consume daily and switching them for a low-alcohol-content beverage, like beer. Switching to beer from hard liquor is safer because it is easier to control the amount of beer that consumed and it is harder to binge drink. Consuming a lighter alcoholic drink like beer also makes it easier for someone to stay hydrated throughout the taper.

Alcohol Taper Schedule

To understand what your schedule may look like, calculate the number of drinks consumed per day. Next, make a schedule where you consume your normal amount on the first day and make regular reductions each day after. An example schedule may resemble:

  • Day 1: 12 drinks
  • Day 2: 10 drinks
  • Day 3: 8 drinks
  • Day 4: 6 drinks
  • Day 5: 4 drinks
  • Day 6: 2 drinks
  • Day 7: 0 drinks

Each day should have fewer drinks than the day before it without becoming stuck on a step — which would defeat the purpose of a taper. A person is free to increase the taper speed (e.g., lower by three drinks instead of two) as they see fit. Withdrawal symptoms are a sign that the taper is going too fast.

Medically-Assisted Alcohol Detox

People have been detoxing themselves from alcohol for years, but utilizing an alcohol detox center is always the safest option. Alcohol detox centers have professionals trained to recognize and treat complications caused by alcohol withdrawal.

Alcohol detox medication can make the process more comfortable. Additionally, the post-detox treatment resources available at a professional treatment center can ease the transition to sober living.

If you or someone you know needs help detoxing from alcohol, call The Recovery Village Ridgefield to speak with a representative and begin on the road the recovery.

HAMS. “How to Taper Off Alcohol.” 2015. Accessed September 23, 2019.

Medline Plus. “Alcohol Withdrawal.” 2018.  Accessed September 23, 2019.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “What Is a Standard Drink?” 2018.  Accessed September 23, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.