What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal occurs when the person drinking either abruptly ceases or gradually stops drinking alcohol all together.

Alcohol actively changes the chemistry of the brain. After years of abuse, the mind and body adapt to the presence of alcohol. When alcohol is not present, they are no longer capable of functioning “normally.” When purging the body of alcohol dependency, especially after years of heavy drinking, one can experience a host of uncomfortable side effects. In some severe cases, alcohol withdrawal can even be deadly.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal stems from low alcohol levels in the body once it is accustomed to being given large amounts of alcohol. Alcohol consumption suppresses certain parts of the brain, promoting relaxation and feelings of joy. Upon drinking, the liver metabolizes the alcohol intake. Any alcohol which cannot be metabolized is absorbed in the brain. Once the drinker stops drinking, the brain still craves the feelings created when the drinker is under the influence. The brain’s inability to readjust without alcohol intake causes adverse effects.

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Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal range from mild to serious and can be very uncomfortable, even painful, to endure. These symptoms are more likely to occur if the drinker has had a previous history of alcohol withdrawals. Despite the many long-term benefits of quitting drinking, unsupervised detox can be very dangerous in the short-term, meaning medically-supervised alcohol detox is highly recommended

In some cases, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can occur and persist for several hours, and even days, after drinking, some even experience withdrawal for up to a week. Symptoms can begin as early as 2 hours after the last drink and are usually most severe between 6 and 72 hours after the last drink.

Timeline of Alcohol Withdrawal

Symptoms that commonly appear from 6 to 12 hours after alcohol ingestion include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • High fevers
  • Nausea/vomiting

These are typical yet severe symptoms which should be closely monitored. Even more dangerous symptoms exist and should be followed by immediate medical assistance. The most serious symptoms for alcohol withdrawal usually appear between 24 and 48 hours after drinking and include:

  • Tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Excessive sweating
  • High blood pressure
  • Delirium tremens

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Delirium Tremens

Delirium tremens is an extremely serious result of alcohol withdrawal characterized by an altered state of consciousness and severe physical symptoms. 1 out of 20 people who drink will experience the effects of delirium tremens. Those who consume a pint of liquor daily for months at a time are more at risk. Delirium tremens usually occurs within a window of 48 to 72 hours after drinking, causing great challenges for the drinker marked by:

  • Extreme confusion
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Auditory hallucinations
  • Tactile hallucinations (feeling a non-existent itching, burning, or experiencing numbness sensation)

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Written Out

Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome

Symptoms following alcohol withdrawal can continue happening for several weeks to a year after the cessation of drinking alcohol. This is known as Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, or PAWS. Loss of consciousness, delayed reflexes, and emotional outbursts are examples of symptoms experienced by someone struggling with PAWS. The onset of unexpected symptoms can result in a former drinker in recovery needing to be or remain in a rehab facility for treatment until symptoms have subsided. Rehab facilities are strongly suggested during this time, as professionals are specialized in providing patients with the ideal treatment.

Who Alcohol Withdrawal Affects

Alcohol withdrawal predominantly impacts binge drinkers and alcoholics. Those who consume 8 or more drinks a week or have a severe dependency on alcohol are far more likely to suffer from the impact of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. When people decide to consume large amounts of alcohol and abruptly stop, they can greatly impact themselves, their loved ones, and impact academic and professional relationships. While teenagers can be at risk, adults are more likely to suffer from alcohol withdrawal as they have generally been drinking for longer and in larger amounts.

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Getting Treatment

The impact of alcohol abuse can cause great damage and disturbance to the user. Once diagnosed by a professional, there are many recommended methods of treatment that help ensure recovery, such as inpatient and outpatient rehab facilities. These options help guide the user through all of the destructive and threatening symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which reduces the risk of relapse. Patients are also prescribed medications and supplements to assist with symptoms during detox.

In inpatient facilities, patients can experience support without judgement. Counseling services are also provided to help patients find root causes of any potential alcoholism, such as co-occurring mental health disorders. Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are available to provide a sense of communal connection. Outpatient facilities allow patients to maintain more of their day-to-day life and keep up with responsibilities while also beginning recovery. Regardless of which route is best for you, be reassured there are options out there that will work for you. Take that first step towards recovery, and embark on the road to wellness. Contact a treatment expert now for more information.

Last Edited: April 11, 2018

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