Know the Facts About Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Does Alcohol Cause Withdrawals?

It is well-known that alcohol dependence can wreak havoc in a person’s life. However, many people continue to abuse alcohol even though their relationships, careers, and social lives are falling apart. Some people assume this is because these individuals don’t want to stop drinking or they’re not strong enough to quit. However, the reality is that not only is addiction powerful but many people keep drinking so they can avoid experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

People who drink alcohol heavily know from experience or anecdotal evidence that detoxification and withdrawal can be distressing both physically and psychologically. Withdrawal can even be deadly if a person detoxes at home without medical supervision. However, it is a necessary process if you want to get your life back on track. As you complete detox, you’ll be ready to enter rehab and learn the skills that can help you to stay sober over the long term.

In this article, we’ll discuss the most common withdrawal symptoms and the dangers associated with at-home detox. If you or someone you love wants to stop abusing alcohol, you need to talk to an addiction treatment professional. Don’t try to handle the situation alone.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal involves a number of symptoms that occur when there’s no more alcohol in a person’s system. The process starts within a few hours of the last drink and acute alcohol withdrawal often lasts for four to five days. Withdrawal is the result of physical dependence on alcohol – a state where the brain and body need alcohol to function normally. The distressing and often dangerous symptoms occur as the body detoxifies or gets rid of the alcohol-related toxins and achieves a new level of equilibrium.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Excessive and chronic alcohol use interferes with the natural functioning of the brain and affects the neurotransmitters that send messages to the central nervous system. Alcohol abuse leads to an imbalance in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which produces endorphins and is the main neurotransmitter involved in relaxation.

The brain gets accustomed to the excess GABA and stops regulating its production on its own. When you stop using alcohol, the chemical balance gets thrown off again and mental and physical withdrawal symptoms occur.

Alcohol abuse also affects the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates enjoyment, motivation, and energy. Dopamine also helps with cognition, mood, attention, and motor skills. Alcohol causes a release of dopamine and as the body becomes more tolerant to alcohol, the brain starts to depend on it to feel good. When drinking stops, dopamine production also stops and this too results in alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal

People who are considering detox often want to know what the typical alcohol withdrawal timeline is like. There’s no way to know which symptoms a person will experience or how intense those symptoms will be. Each person will have a different experience. Despite all the vagaries, we can present a possible timeline.

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can occur in four stages known as minor, major, withdrawal seizures, and delirium tremens. However, not everyone will experience all these stages.

Stage 1 – Minor Withdrawal

The minor withdrawal stage occurs 6 to 24 hours after the last drink and while the symptoms are uncomfortable, they’re not particularly dangerous. They include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Tremors
  • Shaky hands

Stage 2 – Major Withdrawal

This stage can occur 10 to 72 hours after the last drink and the symptoms are more significant and distressing. Symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • High blood pressure
  • Intense sweating
  • Whole-body tremors
  • Visual or auditory hallucinations
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Stage 3 – Withdrawal Seizures

Withdrawal seizures are brief, generalized seizures in people with no previous history of seizures. They can begin within 6 to 48 hours after the last drink and for some people, this is the only withdrawal symptom they experience. About eight percent of people going through withdrawal experience seizures. Symptoms may reoccur over a six-hour period.

Stage 4 – Delirium Tremens

People often ask “can you die from alcohol withdrawals?”. The answer is yes, especially if you experience stage four withdrawal symptoms. Delirium tremens can occur in people who go through severe withdrawal. It often sets in within 48 to 96 hours after the last drink but it can also start up to two weeks after an individual last consumed alcohol. Delirium tremens is the most dangerous stage of alcohol withdrawal and it is characterized by:

  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Stroke

 

When untreated, delirium tremens has a mortality rate of around 35 percent but with treatment, the mortality rate is just about five percent.

Factors Influencing the Severity of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Addiction treatment professionals have identified a number of factors that contribute to an individual’s experience during withdrawal. These include:

  • Your age
  • How long you abused alcohol
  • How much alcohol you consumed
  • How frequently you drank
  • Your history with substance addiction
  • A family history of addiction
  • Pre-existing mental or physical conditions

 

An older person who has been drinking heavily every day for an extended period is likely to experience more severe symptoms than a younger person who has no other mental health issues and has only been abusing alcohol for a short time. Typically, people who drink heavily are more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms than those who don’t. They are also twice as likely to experience hallucinations during withdrawal than light to moderate drinkers.

The use of multiple substances at the same time also increases the likelihood of severe withdrawal symptoms and medical complications during detox. The unpredictability of alcohol withdrawal symptoms reinforces the importance of seeking professional treatment when you want to begin your recovery journey.

What Are Post-Acute Withdrawals (PAWs)?

After the initial acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms have waned, some people may continue to experience prolonged mental and physical challenges. This is a phase known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome or simply post-acute withdrawals. These symptoms can make life challenging even after completing rehab. PAWS can last for anywhere from a few weeks to a year.

Common post-acute symptoms include:

  • Intense alcohol cravings
  • Chronic nausea
  • Low energy
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep problems
  • Memory problems
  • Dizziness

 

PAWS is one of the main reasons why people relapse after undergoing detox and rehab. The symptoms often come and go in waves so the individual feels okay today and then the next day, they’re struggling. The rollercoaster of symptoms can make it hard to resist the temptation to use again. However, each episode only lasts for a few days and the symptoms will go away as quickly as they came if you can wait them out. Ongoing treatment is key to staying sober.

The Risks of At-Home Alcohol Detox

You may think you will be more comfortable if you detox at home alone or with a loved one. However, you need medical supervision and it is highly recommended that you enter an addiction treatment facility where you’ll receive round-the-clock care. Detoxing from alcohol at home is unsafe and it can be fatal.

At the very least, you’ll be highly uncomfortable because you probably won’t have access to the medications that could relieve your symptoms. However, the neurotransmitter imbalances that result from detox can lead to serious problems if they aren’t properly managed. If complications develop when you’re at home, you won’t have immediate access to medical personnel, life-saving equipment, or drugs.

A few of the most common risks of home detox from alcohol include:

  • Stroke. The risk of stroke increases during acute withdrawal because of changes in blood pressure and blood vessel damage due to chronic alcohol use. These risks can be monitored and addressed during medically supervised detox.
  • Heart problems. Because of the neurotransmitter imbalances that occur during detox, the brain often sends erratic signals to the heart. This can lead to sudden changes in blood pressure, arrhythmias, and cardiac arrest.
  • Dehydration. People who drink heavily are often quite dehydrated. However, detox can result in heavy sweating and this increases the likelihood of severe fluid and electrolyte imbalances.
  • Seizures. Neurotransmitter imbalances can also lead to seizures. In severe cases, people develop status epilepticus – a condition in which seizures occur for too long or too frequently and the individual can’t recover in between. It is indicative of brain damage.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

The Importance of Medically Supervised Detox

Even mild withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to manage. Medical intervention can help to reduce the severity of the side effects and reduce the damage caused by any complications. If you get professional help during acute withdrawal, you’re much more likely to move on to the next stage of recovery. You’ll benefit from vitamin supplements, IV fluids, sleep medications, and other medicines that can help you during the process.

Many people who are withdrawing from alcohol experience anxiety and depression. Without psychiatric help, your mental health, recovery, and even life could be in jeopardy. Both medication and counseling are helpful in preventing relapse and ensuring progression to rehab.

If you try to quit at home, you may give in to the urge to take a drink when cravings kick in or the other symptoms seem unbearable. However, when you’re surrounded by doctors, counselors, and other people who are seeking to get sober, you’ll be more likely to maintain sobriety. Medically supervised detox ensures you’re as safe and comfortable as possible as you adjust to the absence of alcohol and prepare for rehab.

Forms of Treatment for Alcohol Misuse

Each person has unique treatment needs and the best facilities adapt their programs to each person’s needs. Common components include:

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient or residential treatment is the most intensive type of treatment and programs typically run for 30, 60, or 90 days. Inpatient treatment for alcohol misuse allows for around-the-clock care in a safe and fully supervised environment.

Outpatient Treatment

Not everyone can commit to one to three months away from home. Outpatient treatment allows individuals to attend sessions during the day and then return home at night. This is best suited to people who have milder forms of addiction and a safe, supportive home environment.

Individual Counseling

Counseling is an important part of recovery from alcohol addiction. You’ll work with a counselor to identify the factors that contributed to your alcohol abuse and learn how to manage triggers and deal with challenges.

Medication-Assisted Therapy

Many treatment programs include medication-assisted therapy to help patients manage withdrawal symptoms so they can focus on other aspects of recovery. Medicines may include benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, and antipsychotics, depending on symptoms.

Peer Support Groups

You’ll need support long after you leave rehab. You may want to join a rehab alumni group, a 12-step program, or some other type of peer support group. This provides an opportunity for you to discuss your goals and challenges with people who are on a similar journey. This can provide you with the motivation you need to stay sober and live a healthier life.

Long-Term Alcohol Sobriety Is Possible with Pathfinders

Despite the discomfort associated with alcohol withdrawal symptoms, the benefits definitely outweigh the temporary challenges. When alcohol is no longer controlling your life, you’ll be happier and healthier. With evidence-based, professional addiction treatment, the outlook for alcoholics can be very positive. However, you need to find a rehab facility that meets your needs.

Pathfinders Recovery Center is a luxury addiction treatment facility with locations in Scottsdale, Arizona and Colorado. However, we accept clients from all across the country.

Contact Pathfinders today to find out if our treatment center is right for you. We offer detox, residential treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, alumni support groups, and more. We’ll discuss your options, verify your insurance, and provide you with all the information you need to make a decision.