Although alcohol is a legal substance, it can cause serious physical and psychological side effects when consumed frequently or in large quantities. Some people even develop a dependence on alcohol, causing chronic substance addiction and difficulty working, going to school or maintaining a fulfilling social life. For people with alcohol use disorder, getting well isn’t always as easy as avoiding bars and sticking to nonalcoholic beverages, as alcohol withdrawal can cause severe discomfort.
What Happens During Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal is a process the body goes through when someone with an alcohol use disorder stops drinking. Within just a few hours of taking that last sip, the alcohol withdrawal process sets in, producing a wide variety of symptoms. The severity of these withdrawal symptoms depends on many factors, such as how long the person has been drinking alcohol, how often they drink and whether they have a family history of alcohol abuse. Some alcohol withdrawal symptoms are more common than others.
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Common Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Many of the most common alcohol withdrawal symptoms affect the mind rather than the body. Someone going through alcohol withdrawal may have difficulty thinking clearly, experience sudden mood swings or feel jumpy or jittery. Anxiety, fatigue, depression and nightmares are also common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Just because someone who’s been struggling with alcohol abuse has mild symptoms doesn’t mean those symptoms shouldn’t be treated. In fact, it may be just as important to treat mild symptoms as it is to treat severe symptoms, as some people exhibit a “kindling effect” when going through alcohol withdrawal. Kindling refers to withdrawal symptoms worsening every time the person stops drinking. The symptoms may be mild after going into alcohol withdrawal the first time, but they can quickly become more severe if someone struggling with alcohol abuse enters into a cycle of withdrawing and relapsing.
Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Some people experience severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which is why so many people with alcohol use disorder hesitate to stop drinking. They’re worried they’ll have to go through severe withdrawal symptoms on their own.
These symptoms include headaches, clammy skin, loss of appetite and trouble sleeping. Without alcohol withdrawal medications and support from trained professionals, a person going through the withdrawal process may also experience the following:
- Dilated pupils
- Pale skin
- Increased heart rate
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It’s also possible to develop delirium tremens, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that can cause potentially life-threatening symptoms. Delirium tremens may cause hallucinations, fever, agitation, seizures or severe confusion. People with delirium tremens need immediate medical attention to relieve their symptoms and prevent severe complications.
Several factors increase the risk of having seizures or developing delirium tremens:
- History of high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels
- Severe alcohol dependence
- Chronic alcohol use
- Poor liver function
- Previous alcohol withdrawal
- Intense alcohol cravings
- Presence of acute illnesses
- Use of multiple substances (e.g., alcohol and cocaine)
- Older age
How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Take?
Acute alcohol withdrawal typically begins about eight hours after an individual decides to stop drinking. The worst symptoms usually subside within 24 to 72 hours, but it all depends on the person’s age, health status, mental health history and history of alcohol use. Someone who’s been drinking alcohol for decades may experience symptoms longer than someone who’s only been drinking for a year or two, for example. There’s no single alcohol withdrawal timeline that applies to every person.
Alcohol doesn’t leave the body as soon as a person decides to stop drinking. It has to be metabolized and excreted, which can take some time. As a result, it can be detected in bodily fluids for many days after alcohol consumption. For example, alcohol can show up on a blood test if the blood is drawn within 12 hours of the person’s last drink. Alcohol can be detected on a urine test for up to five days after ceasing alcohol intake.
Many factors affect the rate at which someone metabolizes alcohol, including:
- Age: Younger people process alcohol faster than older people.
- Health problems: Several organs are involved in the body’s metabolic processes. A problem with one of these organs can increase the amount of time it takes to eliminate alcohol from the body.
- Sex: Men usually process alcohol faster than women.
Treating Alcohol Withdrawal
Many people try to go through alcohol withdrawal on their own, leaving them without the support they need to overcome uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and ensure they stay safe as they eliminate alcohol from their bodies. Going through alcohol detox without medical supervision can be dangerous, especially for individuals who experience severe symptoms or have a high risk of developing delirium tremens.
The first step in treating alcohol withdrawal safely is to enter an alcohol detox program. Supervised alcohol detox provides a safe environment, ensuring people going through alcohol withdrawal have the right support and medical resources. Detox programs are usually overseen by physicians who can prescribe medications to help manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms, making the process more comfortable. If someone recovering from substance abuse experiences severe symptoms, staff members can provide emergency treatment, reducing the risk of serious complications.
Frequently Asked Questions About Alcohol Withdrawal
Does everyone experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms?
Alcohol withdrawal doesn’t cause the same symptoms in every person, but most people do experience some symptoms when they stop drinking. These symptoms are more likely to be severe if the person has a long history of substance abuse or medical problems that could impair their ability to metabolize alcohol at a normal speed.
Is it possible to avoid alcohol withdrawal?
Some people attempt to avoid alcohol withdrawal by tapering their alcohol use instead of quitting completely. The idea behind tapering is that it helps the body get used to smaller and smaller amounts of alcohol, preventing alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Unfortunately, tapering rarely works. As a result, many people are unable to avoid alcohol withdrawal when they’re ready to seek addiction treatment.
What happens after alcohol withdrawal?
After alcohol withdrawal, it’s time to participate in some type of substance abuse treatment. Although outpatient addiction treatment programs can be effective, residential treatment is considered the gold standard of care. Entering residential treatment provides an opportunity to address problem drinking without the usual distractions of daily life getting in the way.
Personalized alcohol addiction treatment is important, as no two alcohol users have the exact same history. Some people drink to cope with trauma, while others use alcohol to reduce their anxiety. For best results, it’s important for treatment providers to take these differences into account. A personalized treatment program typically includes individual counseling, group therapy and family therapy. Some programs even include holistic treatments to strengthen the connection between the mind and body.
Entering residential treatment also gives alcohol users a chance to address any co-occurring disorders they may have. In the world of addiction treatment, co-occurring disorders are mental health conditions that exist along with substance use disorders. Some people develop a mental health condition first and a substance use disorder second, while others start out with an SUD and develop a mental illness later. Addiction and other mental health conditions are closely intertwined, making it important for any alcohol user with a co-occurring disorder to get treatment for both problems.
Review Your Treatment Options
Stopping alcohol consumption without any support can be extremely difficult. Fortunately, there are many treatment options available to lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms and prevent severe complications from occurring during the detox process. If you’re ready to start your recovery, contact Behavioral Health Centers at (772) 774-3872. Staff members at our medical detox facility are ready to evaluate you, make sure you’re in stable condition and help you enter treatment.