It’s estimated by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) that 87% of adults in the U.S. have had at least one alcoholic beverage. While moderate drinking may offer health benefits, binge drinking or heavy drinking can lead to life-long consequences.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Withdrawals happen because alcohol depresses the human body (as opposed to stimulating it). Alcohol decreases brain function and shifts nerve function so messages aren’t sent as clearly. When alcoholism occurs over time, the central nervous system gets used to having alcohol in the body—it also becomes dependent on it.
Simultaneously, the brain is working overtime to help a person stay awake and nerves communicating as best they can. This is tough when a person is an alcoholic, as the brain is battling a strong drug. When alcohol is suddenly no longer in the body, the brain activity goes a little haywire. It remains in a hyper-aware state, not able to process the sudden loss of the drug, and withdrawal symptoms kick in.
Withdrawal symptoms are the body’s response to having an addiction pulled out from under it. Some alcoholics are surprised at how intense their symptoms are. They may have thought they “weren’t that serious of an alcoholic.” However, some bodies adapt very quickly to a regular drug, and will fight against itself when it’s taken away. You can never really know how a body will respond to withdrawal until it occurs.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline & Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may be mild or very serious. The severity usually depends on how long you drank and the amount you consumed per day. If you have abused alcohol for many years, you can expect more serious symptoms than someone who abused alcohol for a few months.
There are 3 stages of severity of alcohol withdrawal. The first stage is mild. You may experience mild symptoms in just six afters after your last drink such as:
- Loss of appetite
- Foggy thinking
- Mood changes
- Heart palpitations
- Difficulty sleeping
Stage two or moderate withdrawal comes with more serious side effects:
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased respiration
- Tremors or shaky hands
These symptoms can develop within 12 to 24 hours of your last drink such as hallucinations. Within the first two days, you may even experience seizures. These early hallucinations may cause you to feel, hear, or see things that aren’t real.
The most serious risk of alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens (DTs). This is also referred to as stage 3 alcohol withdrawal. This is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal. It causes sudden and very severe mental and nervous system symptoms.
DTs does not affect everyone, but when it does happen, it usually occurs three days after initial withdrawal symptoms and lasts for 2-3 days. DTs occurs in around 5% of people dealing with alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms can include:
- Vivid hallucinations
- Body tremors
- Heavy sweating
- Racing heart
- High blood pressure
- Deep sleep that may last longer than a day
- Sensitivity to touch, sound, and light
DTs can be life-threatening. It’s most common among people with a history of alcohol withdrawal, especially people who drink more than 4 pints of wine, 1 pint of liquor, or 7 pints of beer daily for months or people who have abused alcohol for more than a decade.
If you are withdrawing from alcohol and have symptoms of delirium tremens, it should be considered a medical emergency. Sedatives are often used to reduce symptoms.
Remember that alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary a great deal by person. The symptoms you experience will depend on the amount of alcohol you consume at once/daily, how long you have been drinking, stress levels, medical history, co-occurring mental health problems, and more. Not everyone will go through every stage of withdrawal.
Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment
The exact treatments for alcohol withdrawal are as unique as the patient. Many patients require hydration, particularly to treat the side effects of sweating and vomiting.
Some require special medications to make them more comfortable or to keep them out of dangerous territory. All treatments should include around the clock care by professionals. Leaving someone with their withdrawal symptoms, and no help, is painful, cruel, and unhelpful.
Although it can be difficult to watch, the proper care is a must for withdrawal patients and it can only be provided by professionals. Family and friends who try to help in home environments often find themselves giving in to the wishes of the alcoholic because the pain is too much to watch.
Alcohol detox is a safe process that tapers off alcohol use over a period of time and uses medications to reduce over-activity of the nervous system. The physical and mental symptoms of withdrawal can be managed safely.
Nobody wants to see their loved ones suffering. That’s the reason why family and friends are never the right person to help someone through withdrawal symptoms.
Alcohol withdrawal can be a painful and life-threatening process. Quitting drinking cold turkey is not recommended unless you have medical supervision.