Nearly 88,000 deaths per year are attributed to drinking excessively, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many of those people likely did not intend to start the drinking habits that ended their lives.
But the reality is that people who feel like they can’t go without having an alcoholic drink or can’t control their drinking despite mustering up all their willpower to do so, likely have developed alcohol dependence, and will probably stay on that deadly path if they don’t get the help they need.
Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is a chronic disease that involves a preoccupation with drinking alcohol and the inability to control the impulse to drink despite the negative consequences that drinking brings. It also involves a physical dependence that brings on uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when heavy alcohol use is slowed or stopped.
Alcohol addiction is easy to fall into but difficult to end. Though the condition is treatable, it cannot be cured, and recovering alcohol users may require lifelong professional treatment.
Several factors go into what causes alcohol withdrawal, and when you drink, alcohol is broken down by an enzyme in the liver. The process helps clear alcohol from your system through the body’s urine. The brain absorbs alcohol that is unable to be metabolized. Once alcohol reaches the brain, a person will experience euphoria or anxiolytic feelings.
When consumed in excess, feelings of being drunk occur, which lead to slurred speech, inability to walk, and memory lapses. Chronic drinking affects tolerance, and the body will crave more to produce these feelings.
Alcohol has the power to suppress neurotransmitters in the brain, which cause you to feel at ease when drinking. Once someone stops drinking, the neurotransmitters will not be inhibited by alcohol, and it results in hyperexcitability; this is why withdrawal symptoms will affect you differently from alcohol consumption.
Alcohol withdrawal side effects are going to vary from one person to another, and most are apprehensive about stopping drinking because of the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol addiction specialists can supply medications that help relieve pain or deadly side effects as a result of withdrawal. A reduction in these symptoms will allow you to focus on your goal – achieving long-term sobriety.
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Alcohol depresses the body’s central nervous system and slows down how the brain functions, which affects how the body’s nerves communicate with each other. When the body is used to operating with large amounts of alcohol in its system, the brain works hard to keep the person awake. When chronic use is stopped, the brain remains in a state of alertness, which causes withdrawal.
Regular or frequent drinkers build up a tolerance for the addictive substance over time. A high tolerance results in a person drinking more alcohol in an attempt to feel the same effects alcohol produced before the tolerance was developed.
Alcohol withdrawal ranges from mild to severe, and symptoms can be life-threatening depending on the situation. There are also psychological changes that occur as the body tries to return to “normal” after not having alcohol in its system and in the amounts it is used to. The physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms of alcohol include:
Alcohol withdrawal is serious and can result in death. It is important to get help for you or a loved one right away if the person is experiencing symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, or seizures.
Hallucinations are symptoms of serious alcohol withdrawal that occur anywhere from 12 to 24 hours after the last drink. Seizures can also occur within the first two days after alcohol use is stopped.
A person also can experience Delirium tremens, or DTs, which begins 48 to 72 hours after the last drink. Only about five percent of people in alcohol withdrawal experience this condition, which is characterized by confusion, a racing heart, high blood pressure, fever, and heavy sweating. People with DTs also have vivid hallucinations and delusions.
Alcohol withdrawal will vary from person to person, depending on several factors, including:
A doctor determines when a person is in alcohol withdrawal after symptoms and medical history are reviewed. Withdrawal symptoms can start within the first six to 24 hours of the person’s last drink. The longer the withdrawal period lasts, the worse the symptoms are.
Here is a general overview of what happens when a chronic alcohol user stops drinking. Individual experiences may vary, so it is best to consult your doctor about your situation.
Stage 1 (Mild) – This stage occurs within the first eight hours of the person’s last drink, but it also can happen days later. Recovering alcohol users in this phase may experience symptoms that are characteristic of a hangover. Also, a high blood-alcohol level could make users sick and anxious. A person who is in the first stage of alcohol withdrawal may not have had severe alcohol dependence. And even if symptoms are mild, there still could be signs of alcohol poisoning. Medical attention may be needed. Symptoms are likely to fade after a day or two, but if not, the person may be in Stage 2 of alcohol withdrawal.
Stage 2 (Moderate) – In the first 24 to 72 hours (one to three days), symptoms typically peak. Functions of the body’s vital organs, such as the liver and kidneys, are affected and should be monitored. Users may have high blood pressure, tremors, hypothermia, and confusion. These symptoms occur between 24 to 48 hours of the last drink consumed.
Stage 3 (Severe) – If recovering drinkers have reached this stage at the 72-hour mark, which can last a week or more, they may be disoriented or show agitation along with seizures, Delirium tremens, and other serious symptoms. Twenty-four-hour medical attention will be necessary for this phase as medications will be given to prevent conditions from worsening. Impaired attention, hallucinations, and potentially fatal seizures are all characteristics of this stage.
Stages 2 and 3 symptoms can occur rapidly within the first three days of withdrawal, another reason why medical attention should be considered. Users who are not at those stages should see symptoms begin to subside five to seven days after the withdrawal started.
After the first week, there may be lingering symptoms that are Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), which happens after the initial withdrawal period. These can continue for several more weeks or even months after the drug was last used.
Users may experience changes in appetite and sleeping schedules, or they may feel more tired than usual. Depression, high stress, and anxiety are also factors. Professional treatment is recommended to manage this period. Getting adequate rest, maintaining a natural, healthy diet, and connecting with a supportive network of people are effective ways to manage PAWS. Consult with your physician to come up with the best plan for you and your situation.
Alcohol withdrawal can be difficult for users to manage on their own. Symptoms can also go beyond what people can reasonably manage by themselves, which should be taken into consideration. This is why a medically-monitored detox is recommended, especially if side effects like heart arrhythmias, aspiration pneumonia, or kidney or liver dysfunction result when heavy alcohol use stops.
Moderate to severe stages of withdrawal requires immediate medical attention and professional help. Going through drug withdrawal is an uncomfortable process for many as those first few days can be hard on the body, mind, and spirit. Quitting alcohol abruptly, especially after regular use, is strongly discouraged.
Stopping any addictive substance cold turkey can easily lead to relapse as people go back to using to alleviate the taxing withdrawal symptoms that make quitting seem like a bad idea. Entering a detox program will help ensure that you or your loved one is kept safe as alcohol withdrawal runs its course. You can withdraw from the drug without the risk of relapse or seizures, which both can be deadly.
A 24-hour medically supervised detox, which can run between seven and 10 days, ensures your vitals are monitored as symptoms are managed, among them dehydration, nausea, insomnia, and others. Medical professionals may use the taper method to gradually reduce the dosage of alcohol to safely wean the client off the medication as they manage their withdrawal symptoms. The physician typically sets the tapering schedule. Be sure not to taper too quickly as doing so can lead to withdrawal and relapse.
After alcohol detox, most people check into a residential treatment facility, using clinical methods and therapies to address the root of their addiction to alcohol while living at the center in a safe, sober environment. By skipping this step, the thoughts and behaviors that led you to addiction in the first place will be right there waiting for you. Relapse is a common part of addiction recovery, but it is not an unavoidable one.
After your 30 to 90-day stay in residential, it is important to stay connected and participating in treatment. For this reason, many opt to take advantage of outpatient treatment programs to keep therapy sessions going while living at home or in a sober living facility.
Because alcohol is so prevalent in our society, completely removing yourself from tempting situations is almost impossible. This is why it is always a good idea to stay plugged into the recovery community and to stay accountable through programs and connections.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and Public Health. Alcohol Use and Your Health. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
(August 2017). What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?. WebMD. Retrieved May 2018 from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/alcohol-withdrawal-symptoms-treatments#1
(January 2018).Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved May 2018 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). 8: Medical detoxification. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction/section-iii/7-medical-detoxification
Banerjee, N. (2014). Neurotransmitters in alcoholism: A review of neurobiological and genetic studies. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4065474/