How To Taper Off Alcohol

Alcohol tapers are a strategy used to slowly decrease the amount of alcohol a person consumes.

When a person decides to stop drinking, they must decide whether to stop “cold turkey” or taper their alcohol use. Quitting cold turkey involves suddenly stopping all alcohol use, while tapering involves slowly decreasing the amount of alcohol a person drinks each day. Tapers are commonly used in an attempt to reduce the chance of experiencing withdrawal or the severity of withdrawal symptoms. 

An alcohol taper can be an effective strategy to begin recovery and help set a realistic goal for people who are not ready to quit alcohol completely, but they’re not for everyone. Someone who has been drinking heavily for a long period of time may struggle with cravings and alcohol withdrawal symptoms, leading to relapse. Because alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person, anyone struggling with an alcohol use disorder should seek professional medical assistance before considering an alcohol taper.

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Creating an Alcohol Taper Schedule

Figuring out where to start your alcohol taper schedule can seem impossible. It may seem simple to count each drink you consume, but all drinks are not created equal. The alcohol content itself is important, and it depends on the percentage of alcohol, the proof of the alcohol and the actual amount of alcohol in the drink. 

Alcohol proof is the amount of alcohol found in distilled spirits or liquor. The proof is the percent of alcohol multiplied by two. This means that 100-proof liquor contains 50% alcohol. The higher the proof, the more alcohol the liquor contains. Smaller drinks with a higher  percentage of alcohol are stronger than the same size drink containing a lower proof liquor. 

Typically, one drink or standard serving of alcohol is equal to:

  • One 12-ounce bottle of regular beer
  • Two-thirds of an 8-ounce bottle of malt liquor
  • One 5-ounce glass of wine
  • One 1.5-ounce shot of liquor such as rum, vodka, tequila or whisky
  • One 7-ounce mixed drink such as rum and coke

Before you begin an alcohol taper, a little preparation can go a long way, especially when it involves handling your triggers and tracking how much you drink. Always start with a professional consultation with your doctor. Remember your motivation for cutting back and set realistic goals.

  1. Set goals for how many days to drink and how many drinks to have on those days. For example, you could decrease by one drink each day or make the same number of drinks weaker by using half as much alcohol. 
  2. Measure the amount of alcohol in each drink to keep an accurate count of the number of drinks. Use an online drink size calculator or cocktail content calculator.
  3. Track each drink by making a note before you drink it. You can keep track of each drink by making a note on a wallet card, calendar or phone app.
  4. Avoid triggers that cause an urge to drink. List activities, times of day, feelings, places and people that trigger the urge to drink and make a plan to avoid them.
  5. Plan how to cope with triggers that can’t be avoided. Use distractions, have a trusted friend to talk to and keep a reminder of your reasons to quit in a place that’s easy to reach, such as a wallet or phone.

The amount of time it takes to taper off of alcohol can vary greatly from person to person. Some people may be able to taper quickly and quit alcohol completely, while others may take a longer time. But making the difficult decision to cut back on drinking is much more important than the length of your alcohol taper. A medical professional can help you determine if a fast or slow taper, or quitting altogether, is appropriate based on a thorough medical assessment and evaluation of your withdrawal risk.

Why You May Need to Taper Your Alcohol Use

If you are concerned about the amount of alcohol you drink daily and the effect it has on your life, you may benefit from tapering alcohol use. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, drinking in moderation is recommended for adults of legal drinking age who consume alcohol. These guidelines recommend:

  • Two drinks or fewer per day for men
  • One drink or fewer per day for women

The effects of alcohol can vary depending on weight, gender, age and other factors. Each person’s alcohol metabolism is different, and even though a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 is considered legal intoxication, a BAC lower than .08 may adversely affect some people. 

It is recommended to avoid alcohol completely if you are:

  • Under the legal drinking age for adults (21 years of age in the U.S.)
  • Taking medications that may interact with alcohol
  • Living with a medical condition that can be worsened by drinking
  • Pregnant or possibly pregnant
  • Driving a vehicle or operating machinery
  • Participating in activities that require alertness or skill
  • Unable to control the amount of alcohol consumed
  • Recovering from alcohol use disorder (AUD)

It may be time to taper or quit drinking alcohol when any of these signs or symptoms of AUD are present:

  • Drinking more or longer than intended
  • Wanting to cut down or stop drinking but can’t
  • Wanting to drink so badly that you cannot think of anything else
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or being sick from drinking
  • Drinking or being sick from drinking interferes with family, friends, work or school
  • Continuing to drink even when it is causing depression, anxiety or other health problems
  • Giving up on activities that were once important or interesting to continue drinking
  • Getting into situations while or after drinking that increase the chance of getting hurt
  • Having to drink much more than before to get the same effect from alcohol
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wear off

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually occur within 6–4 hours after stopping alcohol and can last for 2–10 days. They are typically most severe after 36–72 hours.

Mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety, nervousness or jumpiness
  • Depression
  • Irritability or mood swings
  • Increased sweating and clammy skin
  • Tremors or shaking of the hands or other body parts
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Difficulty sleeping, nightmares or feeling tired
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache

Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations 
  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Delirium tremens, a life-threatening condition

As many as 71% of people who go through alcohol detox experience symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal can range from uncomfortable to life-threatening, so anyone considering stopping alcohol should speak with a medical professional to determine which method is best for them.

Choosing to Taper Off Alcohol

Follow these steps to make tapering off alcohol easier.

  • Talk to your doctor: An alcohol taper is not for everyone. Your doctor can determine if tapering alcohol is safe for your unique situation and help you create a plan to quit drinking alcohol. 
  • Create a plan: Tapering off alcohol involves gradually decreasing the amount of alcohol you drink. This can be done by cutting down the number of drinks, increasing time between drinks or choosing a weaker drink with a lower alcohol content.
  • Develop strategies to help you meet your goals: Find out what the alcohol content is in your favorite drinks, figure out your motivation to quit and what causes your urges to drink, and plan out a taper schedule.
  • Adjust your taper: If one strategy does not work, try another. If you find it difficult to cut down on your number of drinks per day, try making your drinks weaker by using less alcohol per drink. You may also find it easier to stick to your taper schedule if you avoid certain places and situations.
  • Create a support network: Find an accountability partner or someone you can call to keep you on track when you have the urge to drink. Build a network of people you can go to when you need help, join a support group or see a therapist.
  • Plan for professional treatment: Get professional treatment and long-term support to prevent relapse. Set up therapy, counseling and support groups, a plan for sober living and follow-up medical evaluations.

Long-Term Alcohol Use and Tapering

Long-term alcohol use can lead to developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) and physical dependence. If your body becomes physically dependent on alcohol, you may experience symptoms of withdrawal when you stop drinking. Studies have shown that between 13 and 71% of people going through alcohol detox develop withdrawal symptoms. Factors such as pattern of alcohol use, other medical conditions, genetics, and how your body responds to alcohol can all play a role in withdrawal symptoms. 

Along with withdrawal symptoms, it may be even more difficult to cut back or taper your alcohol use if you suffer from an alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUD makes it difficult to control alcohol use — it may seem like the alcohol is controlling you. A taper may not be right for you if you find yourself frequently drinking more than you intended, trying to cut back and not being able to, or you feel that your alcohol use is affecting your life. If this describes you, you are not alone. People with AUD may be unable to quit drinking alcohol on their own or have attempted to quit before and relapsed.

You do not have to quit drinking alone. Professional help is available. Programs such as inpatient or outpatient rehab, medical detox, individual or family therapy and support groups are available. Through these programs, our caring and dedicated staff can help you on your road to recovery. Licensed medical professionals and highly qualified addiction specialists at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper can help guide you toward a life without alcohol.

Alcohol addiction can be difficult and sometimes dangerous to handle on your own. Take the first step on your road to recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, contact us to learn more and get started with alcohol addiction treatment. Your call is always free and completely confidential. 

Get Help

If you or someone you love is facing an alcohol use disorder, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper can help. We offer medical detox and comprehensive rehab programs that are tailored to suit your needs.

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.