Can Tapering Off Reduce Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

Suddenly Quitting Alcohol Consumption Can Be Dangerous

Count Your Drinks. © Getty Images

If you want to quit drinking, you might want to try to taper off first, instead of stopping suddenly, to try to reduce the severity of possible alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

If you are a daily drinker, a long-time heavy drinker, or a frequent binge drinker, if you suddenly stop drinking altogether, chances are you are going to experience some form of alcohol withdrawal symptoms and if you try to quit "on your own" without any kind of medical assistance, those symptoms could become very severe.

Unfortunately, there is little if any research that shows that tapering off actually reduces the effects of alcohol withdrawal. That could be because withdrawal symptoms vary widely from one person to the next and there is no way to compare results.

We do know that tapering off is a standard medical practice for other drugs. Patients taking antidepressants, for example, are usually not taken off their medication abruptly but have their dosages gradually reduced.

We also know that products used to help people quit smoking, such as nicotine patches or gum, are designed to gradually wean smokers off nicotine by slowly reducing the amount of nicotine they consume.

Common sense tells us that quitting cold turkey from a 12-beer-a-day habit compared to quitting a three-a-day habit is going to be a lot more stressful on the system and cause greater discomfort.

Methods of Tapering Alcohol Consumption

The simplest way to taper off your alcohol consumption is to gradually reduce the number of drinks that you usually drink over a period of time.

For example, if you usually drink five glasses of wine every day, try cutting back to four glasses for several days and then try to reduce it to three.

Some people taper off by spacing out the length of time between each drink. They may limit themselves to only one drink per hour, for example. Or, they may substitute a glass of water, juice or Gatorade between each alcoholic drink.

Others try to taper off by changing from the alcoholic beverage that they prefer to one that they do not like. For example, they may try to switch from wine to beer, which they do not prefer, because they are less likely to drink as much of the beverage they do not like.

There are many other ways that people use to try to cut down on their drinking. Some cutback by mixing weaker drinks with less alcohol. See also: 9 Tips for Cutting Back on Drinking.

Tapering Does Not Work for Everyone

For some drinkers, cutting down on the amount of alcohol they drink simply does not work. They may cut back the number of drinks they have for a short time, but they soon find themselves back to drinking at their usual level.

A visitor to the Alcoholism site described it like this: "My doctor advised me to slowly cut back, but that did not work for me as I could not just have 1 or 2 glasses."

Those who find that they cannot taper off the number of drinks for any significant length of time probably have developed a severe alcohol use disorder or have become what is commonly known as an alcoholic.

For others, simply cutting back the number of drinks they have can by itself bring on alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Another visitor to the Alcoholism site described her experience this way:

I decided to cut back to a beer every 1-2-3 days and have been able to keep it at that so far, but I am still feeling like total crap! I have maybe slept 8 hours total in the past two to three days.

Substituting Doesn't Always Work

Substituting one kind of beverage for another does not help you taper off alcohol if you consume the same number of standard drinks as you usually have. One 12 ounce can of beer contains the same amount of alcohol as a 6-ounce glass of wine or a mixed drink containing 1.5 ounces of alcohol.

Sometimes trying to substitute can backfire on you. Another site visitor shared her experience with substituting wine (which she did not like) for beer, which was her preferred choice:

I started drinking wine to taper, the first week I drank more wine than beer, which led to being even drunker than the beer that I consumed daily. The next week I slowly started tapering. I measured ounce by ounce until I got it down to the last ounce. Part wine and part water. Nasty? yes, but it worked.

For Some, Tapering Is the Answer

One reason so many people who try to quit drinking relapse at least once before successfully quitting is due to the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms they experience. When the symptoms get really bad, they go back to drinking to get relief.

For some drinkers who relapsed after facing severe withdrawals, the answer was to taper off first, rather than suddenly quitting cold turkey. Here are some success stories from visitors to this site who were able to quit successfully:

Withdrawal Symptom-Free

This time, I tapered, having two to four beers for about four or five days and I have been absolutely withdrawal symptom-free.

Tapering Was Not Easy

It was a minute by minute, hour by hour thing at first. It took me three weeks to do it. It was not easy, but I knew it was the only way for me. I had to be determined and strong to fight it.

Better Than Cold Turkey

This time, I tapered off I was drinking 2 or 3 bottles of wine (sometimes a fifth of tequila or bourbon) per day. I tapered with 2 to 4 beers a day. It wasn't all that easy, but far easier than cold turkey.

Step Toward Getting Better

I could not take time off from work or family and tapered off in five days by stretching out time intervals between drinks. It was a long week, but it eventually ended. Each hour you go without a drink is a step toward getting better.

Cutting Down to Zero

I weaned off a bottle of brandy or vodka onto two or three bottles of wine a night down to zero. I have had zero symptoms after drinking all day every day for the past six years.

Getting Help for Withdrawals

If you find that you are one of those drinkers who cannot taper their alcohol consumption consistently or if you find that you begin to experience withdrawal symptoms by merely cutting back, don't give up.

You don't have to let the fear of alcohol withdrawal stop you from cutting back or quitting. You may decide to seek medical treatment for withdrawal symptoms or you may decide to enter a professional detox or rehab center.


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol and Your Health." February 2009.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "What's a Standard Drink?" Updated 2005.

National Institutes of Health. "Alcohol Withdrawal." MedlinePlus Updated February 2009.

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