Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Similar to withdrawal from prescription or street drugs, alcohol withdrawal comes with a lot of unpleasant symptoms. Though these alcohol withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable, in most cases, they are not life-threatening. The physical and mental effects of alcohol withdrawal are mentally and physically taxing for someone attempting to overcome alcohol addiction.
Millions of Americans are dealing with an alcohol use disorder. In fact, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry stated that about 1 in 8 adults in the United States meet the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder. These statistics are alarming and according to the CDC, approximately 88,000 people die annually from alcohol-related causes.
When it comes to alcohol withdrawal, it doesn’t matter if you or a loved one has been drinking for a few weeks or several decades, the results are likely the same. To successfully and safely withdraw from alcohol it’s important to understand the process.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
Like any other controlled substance, alcohol produces intense symptoms once it’s discontinued. The question is: What causes alcohol withdrawal? In terms of physiology, alcohol dependency begins in the liver. Alcohol – like anything else we consume – is broken down by liver enzymes then is released from the body through urine. The problem with alcohol is, once a person drinks too much or too often, the liver cannot effectively break it down and the unmetabolized alcohol begins to affect other parts of the body.
The brain is most often affected by alcohol addiction, as alcohol causes extreme fluctuations in brain chemistry. This is also where psychological alcohol dependence starts. People who are addicted to alcohol feel happier and more relaxed when they drink and if a person is dealing with a lot of stress or trying to repress negative emotions, they will likely drink more to improve their mood. As consumption increases in amount and frequency, the body begins to crave alcohol and tolerance gets higher, meaning it takes more alcohol to produce the same happy effect.
- Behavioral changes like increased aggression and self-destructive tendencies
- The inability to limit alcohol consumption
- Shunning social or professional obligations to drink instead
- Mood changes including feelings of intense euphoria or apathy, loneliness, or guilt
- Problems with coordination like slurred speech, disturbed gait, tremors, blackouts, and/or sweating
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms: What to Expect
Alcohol withdrawal takes place in various stages and those embarking on it for the first time can better adjust if they know what will happen and when. Although the timeline of alcohol withdrawal is fairly linear, the withdrawal experience will vary from person to person. It’s important to remember that the withdrawal symptoms won’t necessarily happen at the same exact time but will occur in what are called stages.
The first stage of alcohol withdrawal begins several hours after a person drinks for the last time. With onset from 8 to 12 hours after the last drink, a person withdrawing from alcohol may begin to experience abdominal pain, headaches, nausea and vomiting, fever, and changes in blood pressure. As withdrawal progresses to the second stage, the symptoms become markedly more uncomfortable.
Second stage alcohol withdrawal typically begins between 12 and 24 hours after the last drink. Though second stage symptoms include both intense mental and physical symptoms, these symptoms are not life-threatening. Symptoms at this stage include, but are not limited to, heart palpitations, anxiety, tremors, hallucinations (auditory, tactile and visual), and confusion.
The third stage of alcohol withdrawal is the most critical and happens anywhere between 24 and 48 hours following a person’s last drink. At this stage, the person will experience intense symptoms that may be better managed in a controlled environment, such as a treatment facility. Even for someone who knows what to expect, stage three symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be pretty scary. Common stage three symptoms include hallucinations, tremors, and even seizures. In addition, delirium tremens (DTs) commonly develop in stage three alcohol withdrawal.
Exactly what is DTs? Delirium tremens is a potentially life-threatening occurrence that is marked by psychological symptoms such as powerful hallucinations and intense seizures. DTs is fatal in about 3-5 percent of people who develop it. Though not everyone who withdraws from alcohol will experience delirium tremens, the possibility of its development is one of the reasons why it is not recommended to attempt alcohol withdrawal on your own. By using medically assisted detox, people withdrawing from alcohol can do so in a controlled environment and decrease the likelihood of mortality caused by DTs.
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What to Expect Next?
Though it is still up for debate, some addiction treatment professionals believe there is, in fact, a fourth withdrawal stage. Following stage three, it’s common to experience purely psychological symptoms, including depression. Other common post-withdrawal symptoms include insomnia, weight gain due to metabolism changes, and lack of energy.
The severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms will largely depend on how often a person drinks, how much they drink, as well as overall health. Those who have co-occurring disorders also may experience alcohol withdrawal differently.
Get Help with Safe Alcohol Withdrawal
Managing the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal alone is not recommended. Aside from generally uncomfortable symptoms, there are some potentially life-threatening side effects that are best managed at an addiction treatment facility. By seeking professional help from qualified staff at a rehab facility specializing in alcohol dependency, those dealing with alcohol addiction can safely detox, learn and manage triggers, and prevent relapse.
At Desert Cove Recovery, our professional staff is there to help you or a loved one safely detox from alcohol. With a whole-person approach, we work to identify the underlying causes of alcohol dependence and give individuals the tools they need to prevent relapse. We specialize in both traditional 12-step programs as well as forward-thinking treatment approaches that include medically-supervised detox, holistic treatment, outdoor therapy, individual and group therapy, and comprehensive extended care services.