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Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

A person refusing to drink alcohol

Published: April 15, 2024

If you or someone close to you is thinking about cutting back on alcohol or quitting it altogether, it’s important to know that doing so may result in withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are collectively referred to as Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) and can range in severity. Remember, while reducing your alcohol consumption is a good step towards better health, it’s crucial to be aware of the potential symptoms you may experience.

Whether you are quitting or just cutting back on a drinking habit, it is important to seek medical attention to assist you through this period of symptoms and to monitor your health. The amount of alcohol a person has been drinking will affect the severity of your withdrawal symptoms.

If you need assistance in finding a supportive environment to help you or a loved one while you adjust your alcohol intake, call our addiction treatment hotline today.

Alcohol Use Disorder and Dependence

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is defined as a history of compulsive alcohol use, being preoccupied with drinking or alcohol, and continuing to drink even after it has caused problems. A person will also have to begin drinking more and more to achieve the same feeling.

Alcohol is known to have a depressive effect on your body, and after a habit of drinking alcohol is formed, the central nervous system will change and adjust to having alcohol in the system.

Alcohol changes the equilibrium between gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), known as the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, and glutamate, which is the major excitatory neurotransmitter.

Due to the depressive nature of alcohol, the body works harder to keep the brain awake and active. Alcohol Use Disorder and dependence can lead to serious health conditions, including liver disease, heart disease, cancer, weakened immune system, and mental health issues.

When the body changes the way it functions in order to integrate alcohol, this is known as alcohol dependence. These side effects caused by alcohol dependence are what will become known as Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome and may require the assistance of a healthcare provider.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

When someone decides to cut back or quit drinking alcohol altogether, there is a possibility they may experience mild symptoms to severe withdrawal symptoms that could even be life-threatening. It is important to discuss your plans to quit drinking with a medical professional.

While you prepare to withdraw from alcohol, you may be wondering what type of symptoms you can expect to experience. The following symptoms are the most commonly reported withdrawal symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Nightmares

These symptoms tend to develop and intensify over two to three days, with milder symptoms sometimes lasting for a month or more. While most people generally experience the more common symptoms, people who have a long history of heavy drinking can experience:

  • Cardiovascular health problems
  • Withdrawal seizures
  • Delirium Tremens (DT)

If you are concerned that you or a loved one may have a difficult time withdrawing from alcohol, contact our addiction specialists today to locate medical care to assist in your alcohol detox.

Timeline of Alcohol Withdrawal

If you are interested in taking a break from alcohol or stopping altogether, it can be helpful to know what type of alcohol withdrawal symptoms to expect and when you can expect them.

It is important to keep in mind that the length and severity of your symptoms will depend on the length of time you have been drinking.

Six hours after the last drink of alcohol

Within six hours of taking your last drink of alcohol, mild symptoms can begin to develop. These symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shaking hands
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Sweating

12 to 48 hours after your last drink

During this time, people can begin to develop more serious symptoms, including hallucinations within the first 12-24 hours and seizures within the first 48 hours. Hallucinations involve seeing, feeling, or hearing things that are not there.

48 to 72 hours after your last drink

For those who are having severe symptoms of withdrawal, this is the period when Delirium Tremens, commonly known as the DTs, can develop. This only occurs in around 5% of those who are withdrawing and detoxing from alcohol.

It is important for those who are experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms to be aware that any severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be considered a medical emergency. This is one reason that medical professionals supervise the treatment of alcohol withdrawal.

Due to the potential for severe withdrawal symptoms, it is important to let your primary care physician know when you have decided to quit drinking. Your doctor will want to monitor your health while you go through the detoxification process.

Understanding Delirium Tremens (DT)

In rare cases, people who quit drinking “cold turkey” may develop severe, life-threatening symptoms two to three days after quitting, known as Delirium Tremens. People who are most likely to develop DT are those who have moderate to severe alcohol dependency.

Symptoms of Delirium Tremens include the following:

  • Extreme confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Severe agitation
  • Tactile hallucinations (feeling an itching, burning, or numbness that is not there)
  • Visual hallucinations (seeing things that are not there)
  • Auditory hallucinations (hearing things that are not there)
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fast respirations (rapid, shallow breathing)
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure

Delirium Tremens is a serious medical condition and can cause dangerous symptoms if left untreated, including heart attacks, strokes, and even death.

Other potential conditions caused by Delirium Tremens include:

  • Sepsis
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Trouble breathing
  • Seizures
  • Electrolyte imbalance

Those who are most likely to develop DT are those who have been drinking heavily for a long time, people who have also used methamphetamine and cocaine, live alone, or have a history of mental health problems such as depression, bipolar, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Delirium Tremens does require the type of medical care that you can only receive in a hospital, which can include treatment by benzodiazepine sedatives such as diazepam or lorazepam. These are used to help calm the nervous system, and there are times when anesthesia is prescribed.

If you have been a long-time drinker or have any of the risk factors to develop DT, it is important to consult with a medical professional before abruptly quitting alcohol. You must seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the symptoms mentioned.

Management of Alcohol Withdrawal

For those who have decided to quit drinking, it is important to make a plan with your doctor and loved ones regarding the method of withdrawing and detoxifying from alcohol. The good news is there are many different substance abuse treatment facilities and programs to choose from.

In most cases, people will choose to admit themselves to a rehab center, where they can detox under the supervision of medical professionals. During the detox period, a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare provider will monitor their vitals: heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), pharmacotherapy, also known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT), is also used in substance use treatment programs to assist with the symptoms of withdrawal.

Detox usually precedes an inpatient or outpatient program to assist people in learning how to live a sober, alcohol-free life. However, people have the option to skip these programs and attend Alcoholics Anonymous and other types of support groups.

A doctor may prescribe diazepam, lorazepam, or an anticonvulsant during detox to help prevent seizures and reduce the anxiety a person can experience while waiting for alcohol levels to lower and dissipate.

Psychological and Behavioral Interventions

When undergoing the process of quitting alcohol, there will be possible psychological and mental health problems that could appear alongside the physical withdrawal symptoms. Some of these mental health symptoms can include cravings, depression, and anxiety.

Healthcare professionals have created methods to help alleviate these symptoms in people experiencing withdrawal from alcohol usage. Psychiatry is one of the ways that people can find relief due to their ability to prescribe medicine for anxiety and depression.

The Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol (CIWA-Ar) is a method that medical professionals generally use to treat alcohol withdrawal. This assists in making sure that benzodiazepine is only given when it is really necessary, not on a fixed schedule.

Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are another valuable way for people to manage their withdrawal symptoms. It can be very beneficial for people to find support in others who are going through the same types of withdrawal as they are.

Another important part of addiction treatment is counseling, which can help people process the underlying mental health problems that may have led to heavy or binge drinking. The chance of maintaining sobriety for a longer period is greatly increased with the use of counseling.

One type of therapy known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) aims to help people change their behavior by changing the way they think. Other types of therapy commonly used to treat addiction are Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Motivational Interviewing (MI).

Healthcare Approaches to Alcohol Withdrawal

A medical professional should oversee the management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome to ensure that your body has everything it needs to go through detoxification. In most cases, there are numerous health professionals to assist in the detoxification process.

Addiction treatment centers are designed to support people who are currently detoxing and help them plan and build for a successful, sober life. Each patient is given a personal treatment plan designed by multiple doctors, including psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, and more.

For many people, the ideal next step is to go to inpatient treatment after detox. In inpatient or residential treatment, patients will go to multiple counseling sessions, group sessions, and addiction education classes.

After inpatient treatment, patients generally graduate to outpatient programs. There are three main types of outpatient treatment, including:

  • Partial hospitalization
  • Intensive Outpatient treatment
  • General outpatient treatment (such as support groups)

When a patient has successfully made it through addiction treatment, they will have been given access to relapse prevention help, including helpline numbers.

It is important for people who have dealt with alcohol dependence to make sure they continue to follow up with their doctor and sponsors.

Complications and Risk Factors

If you or a family member want to quit drinking alcohol for good, you may be concerned about the risk factors and complications you or your loved one may face during the detox process.

Complications of severe alcohol withdrawal include electrolyte imbalance, respiratory distress or failure, seizures, and cardiovascular issues.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that the main risk factors for developing severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms include chronic heavy drinking, having a history of experiencing delirium tremens, or having a history of seizures.

Signs that you may be having serious withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive sweating
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Altered consciousness

If you or someone you love have developed an alcohol addiction and are ready to cut back or quit for good, it is important to know that you are not alone. There is help ready and waiting to assist you in making the last drink you had your very last one.

Find Withdrawal Assistance Near You

If you are unable to control the amount of alcohol you intake or the amount you need to get the original feeling has increased, you may have an alcohol dependence problem. There are multiple ways to assist you in quitting, including rehab, MAT, and support groups.

The symptoms associated with withdrawal can be serious or even deadly, including seizures, heart problems, and breathing problems. It is important to make a plan to quit drinking with your primary care physician so that your condition can be monitored.

When you are ready to take the next step in your sobriety journey, our addiction specialists are available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We are here to help you find the best, most beneficial treatment program for you. Call or message our helpline today to get started.

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