Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may vary from person to person, but the general timeline can be distilled into three stages:
- Stage 1: In the first 6 to 12 hours, people will experience headaches, anxiety, stomach pains, insomnia, poor appetite, and nausea.
- Stage 2: In the next 12 to 48 hours, withdrawal escalates to include new symptoms like hallucinations and seizures.
- Stage 3: In that remaining 48 to 72 hours, withdrawal symptoms include fever, sweating, confusion, quick heart rate, high blood pressure, delirium tremens (DTs) with auditory hallucinations and even death.
For most people, symptoms generally disappear seven days after cessation. The decision to face alcohol dependence is tough. If you or a loved one are about to begin the journey to sobriety, you might have some questions about alcohol withdrawal.
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What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
If a person has been drinking alcohol for a long period of time suddenly stops drinking, the body can experience certain signs and symptoms of withdrawal. This reaction is because alcohol enhances the effect of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to inhibit and reduce the excitability of the brain. Alcohol cessation results in the brain becoming over-excited since that inhibition is no longer in place.
Who is at Risk for Alcohol Withdrawal?
Not everyone will go through withdrawal in the same way — and some people will experience it less severely than others. You are more likely to go through severe withdrawal if you drink heavily, have been drinking for a long period of time, have previously had withdrawals or if you have other health conditions.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol stays in your system for a certain amount of time-based on your body weight, metabolism, and how many drinks you’ve had. Once you stop drinking, expect to experience certain symptoms, particularly if you are a chronic drinker.
Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal
Symptoms peak in the first several days after drinking cessation, but can go on, in less severe forms, for weeks. There is a typical timeline for withdrawal symptoms:
What is Delirium Tremens?
Delirium tremens (DTs) or “alcohol withdrawal delirium,” is one of the more extreme signs and symptoms that can occur after alcohol cessation. DTs are marked by a change in the level of consciousness and delirium and can be fatal in 1% to 5% of cases. Older patients with poor liver function, a history of heavy alcohol use and more severe signs and symptoms of withdrawal at the outset are more likely to experience DTs.
What is the Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal?
Treatment for alcohol withdrawal symptoms and the beginning of the detoxification process is best handled by professionals and often takes place in an inpatient setting like a detox or rehab center.
What is the Long-term Outlook for Alcohol Withdrawal?
The NLM reports that the long-term outlook (prognosis) depends on the extent of organ damage and whether or not the person continues to drink after rehab. In the months after treatment, patients may still experience sleep disturbances, mood swings, and low energy levels.
A complete recovery is possible. However, if patients return to drinking, they are at risk for sustaining serious bodily injury including liver, heart and nervous system disease or damage.
The goal of treatment is to ease the symptoms of withdrawal and support the patient during this critical time. Typical treatment for alcohol withdrawal may include:
- Initial observations of the patient to determine the severity of withdrawal symptoms
- Anti-anxiety drugs, like benzodiazepines to reduce anxiety triggered by withdrawal symptoms
- Anti-seizures drugs, like Depakote to avoid seizures
- Beta-blockers, which can slow the heart rate, reduce tremors and sometimes also help with the craving for alcohol
Alcohol withdrawal is mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. This is why skilled rehabilitation centers, where competent and compassionate professionals can supervise the detoxification process and manage withdrawal symptoms, is so vital for patient health and safety. These are the first, difficult steps towards sobriety.
Contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative about how professional addiction treatment can work for you. Take the first step toward a healthier future, call today.
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.