Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms | Mild, Moderate, & Severe

The severity of withdrawal likely depends on the patient's drinking habits. Moderate drinking is more likely to lead to mild or moderate withdrawal, while heavy drinking is more likely to cause severe withdrawal.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms range from high blood pressure and insomnia to delirium tremens, a life-threatening state of disorientation and hyperactivity. Higher levels of alcohol intake are linked to more severe withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol affects the chemical balance of your brain, including chemicals like GABA, glutamate, and magnesium. The effects of alcohol intake on the brain are also felt when you stop drinking, leading to withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol withdrawal is a sign of alcohol use disorder since the body is physically dependent on alcohol. Alcohol use disorder is a serious but treatable mental health condition that affects millions of Americans.

Mild Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • high blood pressure
  • anxiety
  • upset stomach
  • insomnia
  • nausea
  • vomiting

These symptoms may start appearing 6 hours after your last drink and persist during the onset of more severe symptoms.

Moderate Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Moderate symptoms of acute withdrawal include hallucinations and seizures. These hallucinations may be visual or auditory. Seizures suffered during moderate withdrawal tend to be grand mal seizures, which involve a loss of consciousness and rapid muscle contractions.

Grand mal seizures can start around 12 to 24 hours after the last drink.

Alcohol withdrawal seizures are also a risk factor for severe withdrawal. Many patients who experience seizures may go on to experience severe alcohol withdrawal.

Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Severe alcohol withdrawal is a medical condition known as delirium tremens or DTS. Some studies suggest DTS is caused by a dramatic increase in glutamate, an amino acid affected by alcohol use. High amounts of glutamate can cause overactivity in the brain and nervous system.

Symptoms of delirium tremens include:

  • visual hallucinations
  • severe disorientation
  • tachycardia (high heart rate)
  • hand tremors
  • hyperthermia (high body temperature)

Symptoms of DTS can last for seven days after the last drink, with the potential to last even longer. DTS patients may also be severely dehydrated and suffering from electrolyte imbalances. These factors can make delirium tremens life-threatening without medical care.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS)?

Alcohol affects glutamate levels, and it also affects the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) neurotransmitter, which decreases activity in the central nervous system. Alcohol increases GABA levels, leading to sedation in many patients.

Heavy alcohol consumption over a long period of time affects the body’s ability to regulate GABA levels on its own. This is a sign of physical alcohol dependence. Once a person stops drinking, the body cannot produce enough GABA to keep the nervous system in check, leading to overactivity and withdrawal symptoms.

The severity of withdrawal likely depends on the patient’s drinking habits. Moderate drinking is more likely to lead to mild or moderate withdrawal, while heavy drinking is more likely to cause severe withdrawal.

Assessing The Severity Of Alcohol Withdrawal

The Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol, or CIWA-Ar, is used by medical professionals to tell the severity of a patient’s alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Symptoms assessed by the CIWA-Ar include:

  • nausea
  • headache
  • changes in perception
  • visual and auditory disturbances
  • tremors
  • disorientation
  • anxiety

The presence and strength of these symptoms can help healthcare professionals determine how severe the alcohol withdrawal is, and which treatment options may be needed.

Management Of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Treating AWS involves treating the symptoms of withdrawal. Benzodiazepines like diazepam and lorazepam can reduce hyperactivity, while anticonvulsants and antipsychotics can manage seizures. Multivitamin supplements and thiamine may be given to DTS patients.

After treating withdrawal symptoms, patients may be recommended for alcohol use disorder treatment. Treatment options include detoxification or detox from alcohol, inpatient or outpatient care, behavioral therapy, attending support groups, and preparing for life after alcohol abuse.

To find out if our outpatient alcohol addiction treatment program works for you or your loved one, please contact Northeast Addictions Treatment Center today.

Written by
Northeast Addition Editorial Team

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This page does not provide medical advice.

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