Recovering from binge drinking and substance abuse is fraught with hurdles — the primary one being alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Despite the dangers of alcohol and the myriad problems it poses, taking refuge in the sedative effects of alcohol to numb withdrawal symptoms is a natural reaction to them.
If you’re ready to go cold turkey to get rid of your alcohol addiction, we’ll help you understand how to prevent alcohol withdrawal symptoms. We’ll also fill you in on details of alcohol withdrawal treatment, how long it takes, and why it’s important to be professionally diagnosed for the right treatment during recovery.
Let’s start with alcohol withdrawal.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms or alcohol withdrawal syndrome are symptoms that occur when alcoholics suddenly stop consuming alcohol after excessive drinking that spans weeks, months, or years. The symptoms can set in within hours of the last drink and, in acute cases, can last for several days.
Symptoms can be mild or severe, mentally and physically distressing, and in some cases can even cause severe, life-threatening health complications. Hence, if you’re trying to quit alcohol after drinking for a long period of time, it’s recommended to consult a professional from a specialized alcohol rehab center instead of attempting it all by yourself.
Causes for Withdrawals from Alcohol
From changing the way your nerves respond to messages to slowing down your brain functions, continued exposure to alcohol can have several debilitating effects on your nervous system.
When you suddenly stop drinking alcohol after excessive and long-term alcohol consumption, your brain and body go through sudden, extreme, and severe changes. Though the neurochemical effects of alcohol withdrawal symptoms are nuanced and complex, here’s a brief rundown.
Your Brain Becomes Dependent on Alcohol
Alcohol has a sedating effect on your brain. It slows down certain neurotransmitters and increases dopamine and endorphin production, the hormones responsible for pleasure and relaxation.
With regular alcohol use, your brain adapts to the constant presence of alcohol in your system to the extent that your body ceases to function normally without it. You become dependent on alcohol to produce feel-good neurotransmitters. Without them, it’s a struggle to keep up with regular activities.
The sudden absence of alcohol supply to your system disrupts your brain’s chemical balance leading to physical and psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that impair you and can even be dangerous.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person depending on the frequency, quantity, and pattern of regular alcohol consumption. It also depends on your age, sex, body type, and underlying medical conditions. Let’s look at some of the common and severe symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased heart rate, usually above 100 beats per minute
- Insomnia and nightmares
- Agitation and restlessness
- Poor decision-making
- Headaches and anxiety
- Loss of appetite
- Tremors and irritability
- Poor memory
- Higher sensitivity to sound, light, and physical contact
Severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome are not very frequent. However, while common withdrawal symptoms last a maximum of a few days, the severe ones can last longer. They are not just physically and mentally draining but, in some cases, can even be dangerous. Detoxification is a challenging time for recovering alcoholics and their loved ones.
Delirium tremens, or “the DTs” is one of the most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. It causes sudden changes to one’s mental functioning and nervous system. Delirium tremens is a medical emergency that can potentially be fatal if left untreated. It usually happens to people whose alcohol addiction spans months or years.
A survey by Recovery Village has found that 1 in every 10 people with alcohol withdrawal can experience this.
These symptoms usually set in 2 to 3 days after the last drink. In some cases, they last for more than a week. Its highest intensity is generally observed 4 to 5 days after the last drink.
Delirium tremens can cause severe changes to your temperature, breathing, and circulation. It can even drastically increase your blood pressure and heart rate while causing dangerous dehydration. All these factors can temporarily decrease blood flow to your brain and lead to a stroke or heart attack. Hence, it’s vital to seek emergency treatment upon noticing any symptoms of DTs as it can worsen over time.
Symptoms of DTs can include
- Extreme disorientation, agitation, and confusion
- Alcoholic seizures
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Severe sweating
- Irritability, moodiness, and irrational anger
- Sleep disturbance
- Loss of consciousness and stupor
- High blood pressure
Tremors, trembling, or alcoholic shakes generally start within 5 to 10 hours after the last drink and peak 24 to 48 hours later. Along with tremors, alcoholics can also experience vomiting or nausea, rapid breathing, extreme sweating, hyperactivity, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, increased heart rate, and blood pressure.
This is a condition where a person imagines, sees, or feels nonexistent things. It generally starts after 12 to 24 hours and can last for 2 days or more. Seeing moving objects, ringing sounds, or experiencing itching, numbness, and burning are all common symptoms of alcohol hallucinosis. Having imaginative and detailed visions is the most common symptom of all.
Alcohol and Seizures
Since withdrawal slows down bodily functions, the risk of seizures is high in a dehydrated individual that cannot detox alcohol quickly enough. The type of seizure experienced during detoxification is called status epilepticus. It’s estimated that 9 to 25% of seizures are of this kind.
It usually occurs 6 to 48 hours after the last drink and peaks at 24 hours. Depending on the extent of the addiction, a person can experience multiple withdrawal seizures within a few hours.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline and Stages
The timeline and stages of alcohol withdrawal symptoms differ from person to person. Symptoms can begin to set in as early as six hours after the last drink or can take a few days. Most symptoms peak within the first 24 to 48 hours.
They generally occur in four stages: minor, major, seizures, and delirium tremens. However, not everyone necessarily goes through all these stages.
Stage 1: Minor Withdrawal Symptoms
These symptoms can occur within 6 to 12 hours after your last drink. They are uncomfortable but not life-threatening.
These are some of the minor withdrawal symptoms:
- Agitation and shaking
- High stress and anxiety
- Nausea and vomiting
Stage 2: Major Withdrawal Symptoms
Major withdrawal symptoms are mentally and physically distressing and can begin anywhere between 12 to 72 hours after the last drink. Major symptoms include:
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Whole-body tremors
- Intense sweating
- Nausea and vomiting
- High blood pressure
Stage 3: Withdrawal Seizure Symptoms
Withdrawal seizures can arise between 6 to 48 hours after your last drink. If you haven’t had previous seizures, they can be fleeting and generalized. These seizures happen to about 8% of people experiencing withdrawals from alcohol. Some people can experience seizures without any other symptoms during detoxification.
Stage 4: Delirium Tremens
People undergoing severe alcohol withdrawal can experience delirium tremens within 48 to 96 hours after stopping alcohol use. If you or your loved ones are at risk of delirium tremens, it’s highly advisable to undergo detox under medical supervision since DT symptoms can be deadly.
Alcohol Withdrawal Diagnosis
The diagnosis of alcohol withdrawal syndrome entails a combination of lab testing, interviews, and the observation of symptoms by a medical health professional. Since symptoms and signs of alcohol withdrawal syndrome share similarities to a few other health issues, a detailed evaluation and a thorough assessment of one’s symptoms and condition are vital to identifying and receiving the appropriate treatment.
Some of the expected alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Agitation and anxiety
- Rapid heartbeat
- Hand tremors
- Nausea or vomiting
- Seizures and hallucinations
Even if you display two or three of these symptoms a short while after ending prolonged and heavy alcohol intake, it can still be an appropriate diagnosis for alcohol withdrawal.
Sometimes a blood test called a toxicology screen may be conducted to measure the amount of alcohol in your system.
Your doctor will then recommend the necessary steps and care to manage and treat the symptoms. It’s essential to maintain absolute honesty with your doctor and be honest about your symptoms and alcohol use to receive the best support and treatment.
Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment
Treatments for alcohol withdrawal depend on the severity of the symptoms. While some people can undergo treatment at home, others need supervised medical rehab centers to avoid life-threatening complications like seizures.
However, do remember that the withdrawal symptoms can change rapidly and even violently. Sometimes it’s just a matter of hours before minor symptoms transition to severe side effects. Seeking professional help is thus always recommended to be on the safe side.
Here are some treatments and programs to help you overcome alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
Alcohol Treatment Programs
Regardless of the severity of your drinking problems, these treatment programs can help you tackle them. Treatments are usually conducted in specialized rehab facilities that provide a variety of options and services to people battling alcohol addiction.
For instance, rehab facilities can provide 24/7 support throughout the recovery process and help alleviate some of the most painful withdrawal symptoms. Since there is no generalized method of treating alcohol abuse, recovery procedures generally consist of:
Apart from offering a safe, supervised, and reliable atmosphere for people struggling to overcome their alcohol addiction, inpatient rehab facilities provide 24-hour intense care that usually spans 30, 60, or 90 days.
Outpatient recovery programs are best suited for people with minor symptoms and less severe alcohol addiction. During treatment, patients are taught how to handle drinking triggers and influences with counseling, support groups, and different types of therapy. A key advantage of outpatient treatment programs is patients can go about their daily activities and responsibilities while in recovery.
Some treatment programs offer medication-assisted therapy to help patients overcome painful withdrawal symptoms. These prescribed medications can treat major alcohol withdrawal symptoms while letting patients focus on other aspects of their recovery.
Most alcohol addicts with withdrawal symptoms face vitamin and mineral shortages. Hence, you may also be given vitamin supplements to make up for the essential vitamins that were exhausted by alcohol use.
Alcohol rehab counselors help patients navigate the highs and lows of alcohol withdrawal by providing support and assistance.
They also try to determine underlying reasons that may have led to a patient’s alcohol addiction and coach them on ways to work through them.
Recovery continues long after rehabilitation. Support groups are one of the best post-rehab treatments as they offer an outlet to discuss your treatments while sharing your goals and challenges with other patients undergoing recovery. This can also be a great motivator to maintain your sobriety.
After you’re well past the withdrawal stage, you’ll receive other necessary trigger-preventing resources and tools to help you lead a balanced life after rehab. You’ll also be provided with periodic activities and treatment therapy to assist you in your ongoing recovery.
If you are suffering from mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, then you can be treated at home. However, home care requires a friend or a relative to stay with you for regular monitoring so they can immediately take you to a hospital or call 911 in case your symptoms worsen. They should also be available to assist you during regular visits to your doctor. The visits could be for a prescribed routine blood test or a regular counseling appointment.
In case you find your home environment unfit for staying sober, you can also request your doctor to help you join a shelter program for people recuperating from alcohol abuse.
Alcohol Withdrawal Severity Factors
Several factors influence the severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms and they can vary from person to person. Here are some major ones that can affect your condition:
- Duration of alcohol addiction
- Quantity of alcohol consumed
- Frequency and pattern of drinking
- Family addiction history
- Your addiction history with other substances
- Pre-existing physical and mental health conditions
If you have any previous experiences with withdrawal, the chances of future withdrawals are higher. Moreover, heavy alcohol users are more likely to experience them than light to moderate drinkers.
Most people who undergo alcohol withdrawal syndrome are daily drinkers and consume large quantities for many days. Binge drinking, which refers to consuming multiple drinks in one sitting, is another common reason for withdrawal symptoms. For women, four or more drinks qualify as binge drinking while it amounts to five or more for men.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I Detox at Home?
Even though severe symptoms like delirium tremens are rare, it’s always best to seek a professional’s help once you’ve decided to quit drinking. A medical detox facility can offer you a safe and supportive environment along with 24/7 management and monitoring of your condition.
Moreover, your chances of staying off alcohol significantly increase if you avail of treatment programs instead of going all-in by yourself.
How Long Does It Take for the Body to Heal from Alcohol Withdrawal?
This largely depends on the factors that cause the severity of symptoms. It can take anywhere between 1 to 5 months for your motor and cognitive functions to return to pre-drinking levels.
How Does Alcohol Withdrawal Affect My Mood?
Alcohol withdrawal can cause a wide range of emotions that change swiftly and drastically. Some of the common mood changes include irritability, restlessness, anxiety, and increased agitation. You may also experience impaired judgment and difficulty remembering or focusing.
How to Prevent Alcohol Withdrawal?
There are no proven methods or quick and easy routes to undergo alcohol detox without experiencing distressing symptoms. The best and the only way to prevent alcohol withdrawal syndrome is to avoid alcohol abuse entirely or drink in moderation.
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) defines moderate drinking as two drinks or less per day for men and one drink or less per day for women.
Tips for Dealing with Alcohol Withdrawal
- Drink lots of fluids, especially those containing electrolytes, to fight the dehydration and nausea that are common symptoms of alcohol use disorder.
- Always seek the support of your family and friends before starting your detox. Never go through withdrawal alone.
- Resist the persistent challenge of alcohol cravings during withdrawal as they are bound to happen more than once.
- Create a first-aid container and fill it with things that remind you of a life without alcohol to help you overcome the pains and hurdles during your recovery process.
- Avoid roads and routes that contain liquor stores to decrease your chances of having a relapse.
- Revive an old hobby or start a new one to keep yourself occupied.
- Go for frequent walks in nature.
- Meditate and practice deep breathing to clear your mind, maintain your focus, and keep you relaxed.
- Always eat healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.
- Exercise regularly.
Getting Ready for Recovery
The process of quitting alcohol after prolonged and heavy intake is not going to be easy. Depending on how often, how much, and how long you’ve been drinking heavily, symptoms can be severe or mild. However, don’t let the fear of facing alcohol withdrawal symptoms stop you from making a life-affirming decision.
Once you’ve decided to quit drinking, seek medical help to avoid dangerous repercussions to your health during recovery.
Along with the right therapy and medication, make sure to eat healthy food, drink lots of fluids, and surround yourself with positive people and a nurturing environment. By putting in place appropriate steps and measures, you’ll be on the road to recovery before you know it.