It can be tempting to just “rip off the Band-Aid” when getting sober, but tapering off alcohol is often much safer—and much less stressful. Rather than quitting drinking abruptly (or “cold turkey”), many professionals recommend gradually reducing your drinking (or tapering) over time. This can give your body the chance to adjust, helping you avoid the worst of withdrawal symptoms.
If you’ve decided to quit drinking, and tapering seems like the right approach, we’ve got you covered. Here’s how to wean off alcohol—including useful strategies, how to create a tapering schedule, and how to stay safe throughout the process.
Why Taper Off Alcohol?
Every individual is unique. Some people are facing problems with their health or personal lives which require them to quit immediately. Others might just prefer to get it over with quickly. However, for many people with alcohol use disorder, tapering off alcohol is a far better experience than quitting abruptly.
Weaning off alcohol gives your body chemistry a chance to adjust, reducing the shock to your system. It also lets you start working new habits and routines into your day to replace drinking, starting the transition. Rather than beginning your sober life drained and dazed from a week of feeling ill, you can already be getting on your feet.
That said, tapering off alcohol doesn’t completely eliminate withdrawal symptoms. Usually, it just mutes them. Alcohol withdrawal is dangerous and it’s important to be careful throughout the process. Make sure you have access to medical care and social support.
Tapering vs Cold Turkey
The main difference between tapering and cold turkey is how fast you quit. Cold turkey is a common slang term for quitting alcohol (or any substance) all at once. Tapering or weaning means ramping down your alcohol use until you get to zero—or to a more moderate level of drinking that you prefer.
The main downside of cold turkey is how unpleasant and risky it can be. If you drink heavily, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be harsh, dangerous, and even fatal. For this reason, it’s generally best to avoid quitting abruptly, or at bare minimum speak with a doctor first and have someone looking out for you.
The main downside of tapering off is that it requires discipline. You’ll need to stick with gradual reduction every day and not revert to previous levels of consumption, otherwise it won’t work. If it’s too hard to control how much you drink each day, weaning might not be the right strategy. That said, there are now several medications that can help reduce your cravings and make weaning off alcohol easier.
It’s also important to point out that if you struggle with episodic binge drinking (for example, drinking dangerous amounts every weekend, but not drinking during the week), this may not apply to your situation. Quitting binge drinking may require different strategies than either tapering or cold turkey. Read more about how to stop binge drinking.
How Long Does Tapering Off Alcohol Take?
Depending on how much you drink, tapering off alcohol can take one to several weeks. It’s best to reduce your drinking by a small amount each day to avoid the shock to your system. So, if you normally have 6 beers a day, you could be done tapering within one week. If you have 20 drinks a day, 2 weeks might be safer. It’s always best to consult a physician on the best strategy, especially if you drink heavily. Tapering is still dangerous if not handled properly.
Schedule a private call with a Ria Health team member and we can help you get started.
Strategies For Weaning Off Alcohol
If you’ve decided to taper off alcohol, you’ll need to be prepared with some strategies to make the process easier. You’ll likely face the urge to drink more than you’ve planned each day, but there are some good tricks to help you delay that next serving and keep yourself honest.
- Set up a tapering schedule in advance (see below). Decide how much you’ll reduce your drinking each day, and have a specific finish date. You can even put a chart on your fridge as a reminder.
- Count and space your drinks. Use a journal or drink-tracking app to record how many you’ve had, and decide on a minimum interval between drinks. You could even use a timer to tell you when you’ve waited long enough.
- Stay consistent in your definition of “one drink.” The standard drink definition is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.1 Choose drinks with a consistent ABV to make it easier, and either measure your drinks out or drink prepackaged servings (one 12 ounce can, for example).
- Switch to a drink you like less, and only stock your house with that option. If you like liquor, for example, buy a case of a beer brand you don’t like the taste of. Treat alcohol like your withdrawal medication, rather than something you look forward to. Medicine needn’t be tasty.
- Dilute your drinks more and more each day until you reach 0% ABV. Another strategy is to have the same total number of drinks per day, but gradually reduce the percentage of alcohol. For example, make a jug of a particular mixed drink for the day, and measure a smaller quantity of liquor into it each morning until you get to zero.
- Space drinks with water and nonalcoholic substitutes. Holding a nonalcoholic drink can keep you occupied and make it easier to delay the next serving of alcohol. But water and electrolytes are especially important. Quitting alcohol can be dehydrating, and they don’t call it detox for no reason.
How To Make an Alcohol Tapering Schedule
Creating a tapering schedule you can stick with is a crucial part of weaning yourself off alcohol. The best schedule varies based on how much you drink each day and your overall health. As mentioned above, we strongly recommend speaking with a doctor to ensure your plan is a safe one, and won’t cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Start by estimating how much you drink on a daily basis—and be honest with yourself. It can help to make use of standard drink measurements, as mentioned above. Then come up with a reduction rate you think will be safe, and that you can stick to.
As a rule of thumb, HAMS (a harm reduction support organization) suggests reducing your consumption by two standard drinks per day until you reach zero. For example, if you typically have 10 drinks per day, you could cut back to 8 the first day, then 6, 4, 2, and finally none. This would take 4 to 5 days. If you have 20 or more drinks per day, they suggest one drink per hour the first day, every hour and a half the next, then reducing by 2 drinks per day after that.2
This may work for many people, but in practice each individual will respond best to a different pace, and each doctor will have their own recommendations. The risk of tapering too slowly is that you won’t stick with it, while the risk of tapering too fast is severe withdrawal. If you experience dangerous signs such as high blood pressure, racing heart, or arrhythmias, slow your taper and seek assistance.
Sample Alcohol Tapering Schedule
Current Drinking Level: 10 beers per day
Goal: Quitting drinking completely
Day 1: 8 beers
Day 2: 6 beers
Day 3: 4 beers
Day 4: 2 beers
Day 5: No alcohol
Withdrawal and Safety When Tapering Off Alcohol
Tapering is meant to reduce the withdrawal symptoms from quitting alcohol, but this isn’t a guarantee. As mentioned above, many people will still experience some level of withdrawal, just to a lesser degree. Symptoms are more likely the more heavily you drink.
Common symptoms of withdrawal include:
If you experience any of the following serious symptoms, slow down your taper and seek medical assistance. Severe withdrawal can be fatal:
- Elevated or irregular heart rate
- High blood pressure
What To Do After You Finish Tapering Off
Successfully weaning off alcohol is a big accomplishment. But, as many in recovery will tell you, it is only the first chapter in a long process.
Establishing new habits and routines, and dealing with the underlying causes of your drinking habits, are essential to lasting recovery. Alcohol also changes your brain chemistry, which can result in higher levels of anxiety and depression for the first several months. Finally, just because you’ve gotten past the withdrawal phase doesn’t mean you won’t continue to face psychological aspects of addiction—including alcohol cravings and drinking triggers.
This is why it’s always best to find some form of long-term support in sobriety. Support groups, from Alcoholics Anonymous to SMART Recovery, are one free way to find a community of people on the same journey. There are also a number of anti-craving medications to help you avoid drinking again, or even help with your tapering process. Finally, finding a therapist or a recovery coach can help you develop new coping mechanisms and move forward in your life.
Ria Health offers access to many of these tools, including prescription medications, recovery coaching, and online support groups—all through a HIPAA-compliant smartphone app. We support both moderation and abstinence as goals and, although we cannot provide medical detox remotely, we can help you design an effective tapering schedule to reduce your drinking.