Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms & Timeline

Alcohol is a Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressant. It impairs certain functions of the brain by disrupting connections between neurons. This is why someone who drinks too much alcohol will have trouble with coordination and judgment. When someone drinks alcohol regularly or in large quantities, their brain will begin to adapt to the effects of alcohol and develop a tolerance. Eventually, the person will feel that they need to drink to feel normal or get through the day. When someone with alcohol dependence stops drinking the sudden absence of alcohol in their body shocks their nervous system, which causes withdrawal. To avoid withdrawal, people who are addicted to alcohol drink compulsively, even though they know that alcohol is harming their health and their relationships. Alcohol withdrawal is not only physically dangerous, but it’s also a major obstacle to overcoming alcohol addiction. Alcohol withdrawal is a collection of symptoms that binge drinkers or alcoholics experience when they suddenly stop drinking alcohol. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be fairly mild, but in some cases, alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening. Withdrawal is most common in adults, but children and https://newvistahealth.com/addiction-treatment/drugs/alcohol/abuse/adolescents who have an alcohol use disorder can experience it as well. Although many people who suffer alcohol withdrawal survive if they receive treatment, it is imperative for those who are regular heavy drinkers to receive medically-supervised detox.

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What Are The Symptoms Of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Everyone who undergoes alcohol withdrawal will have a different experience, but the most common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are:

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Heightened blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shaking and tremors
  • Sweating

Delirium Tremens

Delirium tremens is a condition that characterizes extreme alcohol withdrawal. Delirium tremens (the “DTs”) is potentially fatal because it can cause seizures. About 1 in every 20 people who experience alcohol withdrawal will also suffer delirium tremens. The condition is most likely to occur in people who are severely addicted to alcohol and have experienced alcohol withdrawal in the past.

Most symptoms of delirium tremens usually begin within 2 to 3 days after a person stops drinking. If you or someone you know exhibits signs of delirium tremens, it is important to get help right away. 

The symptoms of delirium tremens include:

  • Emotional distress
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations
  • Hypersensitivity to sound, touch, and light
  • Intense agitation or irritability
  • Intense confusion
  • Seizures (usually within 1 day of the last drink)

Alcohol Withdrawal And Detox Timeline

What happens to your body when you give up alcohol may hinge on a variety of factors. Depending on the level of physiological alcohol dependence, the severity of acute alcohol withdrawal will vary for different individuals.

  • Stage 1 (mild): symptoms may include headache, insomnia, anxiety, hand tremor, gastrointestinal disturbances, and heart palpitations.
  • Stage 2 (moderate): symptoms may include Stage 1 mild symptoms in addition to increased blood pressure or heart rate, confusion, mild hyperthermia, and rapid abnormal breathing.
  • Stage 3 (severe): symptoms include Stage 2 moderate symptoms in addition to visual or auditory hallucinations, seizures, disorientation, and impaired attention.

While a precise timeline for alcohol withdrawal will vary from person to person based on several factors (average quantity and duration of heavy drinking behavior, the concurrent presence of physical and mental health issues, etc.), a general symptom timeline for alcohol detox may look something like:

  • 6-12 hours after the last drink, the relatively mild symptoms of early withdrawal may begin to be felt, including some headache, mild anxiety, insomnia, small tremors, and stomach upset.
  • By 24 hours, some people may have begun to experience visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations.
  • Within 24-72 hours, various symptoms may have peaked and begun to level off or resolve (though some more protracted symptoms may stick around for weeks or longer). Seizure risks may be highest from 24-48 hours after the last drink, requiring close monitoring and seizure prophylaxis. Withdrawal delirium (i.e., DTs) may appear from 48-72 hours after drinking has stopped.

During the third, fourth, and fifth days of withdrawal, a person will experience emotional distress and delirium tremens may continue. After 5 days the physical symptoms of withdrawal begin to subside; psychological symptoms often persist, however. Some people will continue to have anxiety, irritability, and insomnia for weeks or even months.

Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment, Coping & Prevention

No one should attempt to detox from alcohol alone. Medical professionals at hospitals and recovery centers are able to help people with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. For example, doctors and nurses often provide detox patients with Benzodiazepines and medications to help them cope with anxiety and avoid seizures. They also monitor their patients’ blood pressure and other vital signs and make sure they stay hydrated. Alcohol withdrawal is difficult and takes a tole on the body. In many circumstances, alcohol withdrawal can be more difficult than other substances like cocaine, because alcohol affects major organs like the liver and kidneys.

Medications Prescribed for Alcohol Withdrawal

To prevent or lessen withdrawal symptoms or medical complications that can occur with severe alcohol withdrawal, doctors may prescribe some drugs that can stop certain withdrawal reactions from proceeding to serious consequences.

Some of these medications may include:

  • Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam, chlordiazepoxide, oxazepam, or lorazepam. If benzodiazepines are administered early during alcohol withdrawal, they may help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms, preventing a progression to potentially serious, and fatal, consequences.
  • Anticonvulsants like carbamazepine, gabapentin, or topiramate. These medications help reduce drinking behavior and treat mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms. Topiramate has not yet received FDA approval but has shown promise in treating alcohol addiction.
  • Antipsychotics, like haloperidol, which can reduce extreme agitation, hallucinations, delusions, and delirium during alcohol withdrawal.

In addition, recovery centers often have therapists and counselors on staff to talk to patients and help them manage their emotions as they progress through detox. Someone who is detoxing at a treatment center will probably also receive a thorough diagnosis of any physical or mental problems which co-exist with their addiction. Various treatment approaches and settings can help provide the ongoing support necessary to maintain long-term sobriety after you complete detox.

  • Inpatient or residential rehab treatment for alcohol involves living at a facility for the duration of treatment while you receive around-the-clock support and intensive therapy in group and individual sessions.
  • Outpatient treatment involves living at home and attending group and individual therapy sessions at regularly scheduled appointments. This allows you to practice what you learn in treatment in real-world situations while managing stressors.

In general, the course of alcohol withdrawal is highly variable and somewhat unpredictable. Screening and assessment tools do not allow physicians to predict with confidence who will or will not experience life-threatening symptoms. Those experiencing mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms or who are concerned about experiencing withdrawal symptoms will benefit from the advice of a physician or clinician trained to assess and treat patients in alcohol withdrawal.

Those experiencing moderate to severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, or those who are at risk of experiencing moderate to severe symptoms (i.e., if you’ve had severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the past) typically require inpatient monitoring and treatment of withdrawal symptoms at an acute care hospital or detox-equipped facility. Outpatient treatment may be available for mild-to-moderate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, however, should symptoms become severe, inpatient care may be required.

What Is Alcohol Detox?

The best way to conquer an addiction to alcohol or any other substance is to stop using. When someone undergoes alcohol detox, they deliberately abstain from drinking to give their body time to adjust to functioning without alcohol. Alcohol detox can be painful, distressing, and dangerous because it requires a person to experience a full range of withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal often causes a person to relapse, but detox affords them the opportunity to stop drinking safely and less painfully. Someone who resolves to experience withdrawal and not suppress it by having another drink will take the process most seriously, but the gain is lost if they endanger their life by using it again.

Since some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are dangerous, people should undergo alcohol detox under medical supervision at a rehab facility. People who detox from alcohol with professional help are more likely to weather the process safely and successfully. Detox may not be pleasant, but it is a necessary first step for anyone who wants to recover from alcoholism. After detox is over, a person in recovery can begin therapy in a treatment program.

Post Detox And Withdrawal Therapies

  • Therapies such as family therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • 12-step meetings, such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)
  • Participation with other mutual support groups such as Smart Recovery.
  • AAC’s free online virtual support meetings.

 

Find Help For Alcohol Withdrawal

Withdrawal is one of many terrible consequences of alcohol abuse, but there is hope for a better tomorrow. If you or someone you know is ready to start a life without alcohol addiction. Contact our recovery centers today for a free, confidential personalized consultation. The fear of withdrawal shouldn’t prevent your recovery. One phone call could make a tremendous difference.

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George Kocher

George Kocher

George is a content creator with 7 years of experience working with substance use disorder patients. He has held positions as an admissions director, marketing manager, and Chief Marketing Officer within chemical dependency.

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