Contrary to popular belief, psychosis is not a mental health condition. Psychosis is a state that can either exist as a symptom of a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia or be brought on by certain substances, including alcohol. In most instances, alcohol-induced psychosis ends when the symptoms of alcohol consumption or withdrawal subside. However, in cases of prolonged use, psychosis can be long-lasting or life-threatening. It’s crucial that anyone experiencing alcohol-induced psychosis or exhibiting the early signs of an alcohol use disorder receive professional treatment.
Article at a Glance:
It’s best to seek medical help during or shortly after an episode of alcohol-induced psychosis. If you or a loved one have an alcohol use disorder or experienced substance-induced psychosis, it’s important to keep the following points in mind:
- Prolonged or excessive alcohol use can lead to temporary psychosis.
- Alcohol-induced psychosis typically manifests as acute intoxication, alcohol hallucinosis or AWD.
- While the exact cause of alcohol-induced psychosis is unknown, it is thought to be related to the way that excessive alcohol consumption affects the brain and body.
- While alcohol can cause temporary psychosis, it typically does not cause long-term psychosis.
- When psychosis persists for an extended period after alcohol use has stopped, it is often a sign of a co-occurring mental health condition.
- Professional care is necessary for any individual experiencing alcohol-induced psychosis, as this is usually a sign of an alcohol use disorder.
Table of Contents
Can Alcoholism Lead to Psychosis?
Alcohol use can trigger short-term psychosis, including acute alcoholic psychosis, alcoholic hallucinosis and AWD. In most cases, these episodes of psychosis will end once alcohol consumption has ceased and withdrawal symptoms have subsided. If long-term psychosis persists, it is typically caused by a separate, co-occurring mental health disorder that predated or developed alongside the alcohol use disorder, like schizophrenia.
Telling the difference between alcohol-related psychosis and schizophrenia can be difficult, as they share many of the same symptoms. Fortunately, alcohol-induced psychosis has characteristics that distinguish it from schizophrenia, including:
- Later onset of symptoms
- More depressive and anxiety symptoms
- Fewer negative and disorganized symptoms
- Less functional impairment
What Causes Alcohol-Induced Psychosis?
The exact cause of alcohol-induced psychosis is unclear. Some studies suggest that alcohol-induced psychosis is the result of alcohol’s effects on the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, namely dopamine. Others speculate that the way alcohol disrupts certain neural receptors plays a role. What is certain is that prolonged alcohol use has profound, far-reaching effects on both the brain and body. Alcohol-induced psychosis is thought to be a result of these effects.
Types and Symptoms of Alcohol-Induced Psychosis
Alcohol-induced psychosis describes any delusions and hallucinations tied to heavy alcohol consumption that cannot be attributed to a pre-existing mental health condition. Generally, alcohol-induced psychosis exists in three forms: acute intoxication, chronic alcohol hallucinosis and alcohol withdrawal psychosis.
While uncommon, acute intoxication describes the acute alcoholic psychosis that occurs after a person consumes a large amount of alcohol in a single sitting. In most cases, alcohol psychosis symptoms end once the body is clear of alcohol. However, consuming alcohol in large enough quantities to trigger psychosis often also leads to alcohol poisoning. Anyone experiencing acute intoxication should receive medical attention as soon as possible. In many cases, alcohol poisoning can be fatal.
Alcohol poisoning can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone contact Web Poison Control Services for online assistance.
Chronic Alcoholic Hallucinosis
Alcoholic hallucinosis is a rare condition that usually arises after years of chronic, severe alcohol abuse. While other forms of alcohol-induced psychosis may involve visual and tactile hallucinations, those associated with alcoholic hallucinosis are primarily auditory and usually occur during or shortly after periods of heavy alcohol consumption. Alcoholic hallucinosis may also involve delusions and mood disturbances. The periods of psychosis characteristic of alcoholic hallucinosis may last for a matter of hours, days or weeks, or progress to a chronic, long-lasting form that mimics schizophrenia.
Alcohol Withdrawal Psychosis
Hallucinations are a possible side effect of alcohol withdrawal. In some cases, these hallucinations can escalate to a full-blown state of temporary psychosis called alcohol withdrawal delirium (AWD). Individuals who stop drinking after consuming high volumes of alcohol over an extended period are at a particularly high risk of developing AWD. Long-term alcoholism can change the structure and chemical makeup of the brain, triggering temporary psychosis when alcohol is removed from the system.
Also referred to as delirium tremens, symptoms of AWD may include any of the following:
- Extreme sensitivity to light, sound or touch
- Sudden changes in mood
- Increased heart and breathing rates
- Formication, or the feeling that tiny insects are crawling on or under the skin
- Body tremors
Delirium tremens is one of the most potentially dangerous side effects of alcohol withdrawal. These symptoms tend to be life-threatening and require professional medical attention. Because of this, it’s important that any individual undergoing alcohol withdrawal do so under the supervision of a medical detox program.
Treatment Options for Alcoholism Psychosis
While alcohol assessments and quizzes can help determine if an individual is addicted to alcohol, experiencing any form of alcohol-related psychosis is often a sign of an alcohol use disorder. Therefore, it’s important to stop consuming alcohol as soon as possible in the event of an alcohol-induced psychosis episode. In most cases, stopping alcohol consumption is the first step in alcohol-induced psychosis treatment, as the symptoms of psychosis tend to subside once alcohol is out of a person’s system.
Alcohol-induced psychosis tends only to arise when individuals consume quantities of alcohol that lend themselves to dependence and withdrawal, so it’s safer to stop drinking under medical supervision as part of a professional medical detox program.
Individuals with an alcohol use disorder tend to have more success when medical detox is undergone as part of a continuum of care because they can gradually develop the skills needed to maintain lifelong recovery.
A continuum of care includes:
- Medical detox
- Inpatient programs
- Partial hospitalization
- Intensive outpatient
- Outpatient programs
While psychosis can develop temporarily as the result of excessive alcohol consumption, it may also be a symptom of a co-occurring psychotic disorder, like schizophrenia, schizoid personality disorder or schizotypal personality disorder. In these cases, a dual diagnosis alcohol treatment program that addresses both the alcohol use disorder and psychological condition is vital to long-term recovery.
With treatment centers across the country, The Recovery Village provides high-quality medical and clinical support to individuals struggling with an alcohol use disorder and co-occurring psychosis. If you or a loved one are ready to take the first step toward recovery, reach out to a representative today for more information.
Medline Plus. “Delirium Tremens.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, April 9, 2020. Accessed May 11, 2020.
Stankewicz, Holly; Richards, John; Salen, Philip. “Alcohol-Related Psychosis.” StatPearls, April 11, 2020. Accessed May 11, 2020.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Psychosis.” Accessed May 11, 2020.
Bhat, Pookala et al. “Alcohol Hallucinosis.” Industrial Psychiatry Journal, July-December 2012. Accessed May 11, 2020.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. “Alcohol Related Psychosis.” October 27, 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.