Speak to an Addiction Specialist

(425) 629-0433

  Call 24/7 For Help

What is Alcohol Withdrawal Like?

The fact is that alcohol withdrawal is one of the most dangerous forms of withdrawal. The symptoms can quickly become severe, and in many cases, it can be life threatening. To make matters worse, people do not always know if they are at risk for some of the complications that can accompany it.

If you have decided to stop drinking, there is a lot of information you need to know. It is critical for you to be aware of the risks involved, and you should also know about the safest ways to stop.

Recovering from alcoholism is not easy, and there will be many challenges along the way. But with the right support, it is possible. We can provide you with your options, but first, we should discuss alcohol withdrawal in more detail.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal?

The term alcohol withdrawal refers to the physical and/or psychological response people have when they do one of two things – either cut down on how much or how often they drink, or stop drinking altogether. It happens for people who have been drinking for long periods of time, but everyone is different. For some, it can happen if they have been drinking regularly for weeks. For others, it might not happen until they have been drinking for a few months.

It is unlikely that someone who only drinks moderately will experience alcohol withdrawal when they quit. This is defined as consuming up to 4 drinks for men and 3 for women per day, or 14 drinks for men and 7 for women per week.

Addiction Quiz

Why do Alcoholics Experience it?

Doctors believe that withdrawal symptoms occur for those who have an alcohol addiction. It has a depressant effect on the body, which means it slows down brain function. It also changes the way the nerves send messages to each other.

As an alcoholic continues to drink over time, the central nervous system adjusts. It learns to expect alcohol at regular intervals. The body works hard to keep the brain awake and keep the nerves working as they should. When the alcohol level drops abruptly, the brain stays in this state, and that is what leads to withdrawal symptoms.

Basically, the alcoholic's brain is shocked when the flow of alcohol stops suddenly. You get used to drinking, and when you are no longer giving your body its daily dose, it responds in a negative way; at least at first.

Common Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

People usually experience mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms when they first stop drinking or cut down. It is common for them to believe that what they feel in the earlier stages is all they will feel. This is why so many alcoholics think they can quit drinking without assistance.

Some of these milder alcohol withdrawals include:

  • Feeling anxious or nervous
  • Feeling irritable
  • Having mood swings
  • Having nightmares
  • Feeling jumpy or shaky
  • Feeling very tired
  • Becoming depressed
  • Brain fog

The reality is that while alcohol withdrawal may start out mild, it usually becomes much worse. Eventually, new symptoms will develop, and these include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Frequent headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pallor
  • Hand tremors
  • A rapid heart rate, or even heart palpitations
  • Clammy, sweaty skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Strange eyelid movements

Fortunately, the right alcohol withdrawal treatments can help to minimize these and any other symptoms.

Is it Dangerous to Withdraw From Alcohol?

It can be extremely dangerous to go through withdrawal as an alcoholic. As we mentioned earlier, complications can arise that can even put your life at risk.

The symptoms we listed above can make you feel uncomfortable, but they are not really dangerous. They can be enough to make people go back to drinking to get some relief. There are several withdrawal symptoms that can occur that can lead to serious medical problems, or even death, such as:

  • Vivid and detailed audio or visual hallucinations. These can last for as long as two days, and have the potential to lead to psychosis or suicidal thoughts.
  • Seizures, which can put your life at risk.
  • Delirium tremens, which is a condition that can cause significant complications.
  • Severe vomiting, which can lead to aspiration.
  • Delirium and cognitive impairment, which can lead to a chronic memory disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

When symptoms move past the mild stage and become severe, some doctors refer to this as alcohol withdrawal syndrome. The symptoms tend to vary, depending on a few different factors, such as:

  • How much alcohol they drank.
  • How long they have been drinking.
  • Their body type.
  • Their sex.
  • Their age.
  • Any underlying medical conditions.

When an alcoholic is diagnosed with withdrawal symptoms, doctors always recommend treatment for them. This is the only way to help the patient potentially avoid complications.

What is Delirium Tremens?

Delirium tremens is a condition that every alcoholic fears. It is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that involves sudden changes in the person's mental state and/or nervous system. Most people refer to it as DTs.

DTs begin when alcoholics stop drinking after they have been consuming excessive amounts of alcohol for a period of time. It usually occurs in those who have a history of withdrawal. That means your risk for it is higher if you have been through alcohol withdrawals in the past. You are also more at risk for the condition if you have been drinking a lot over the course of several months, or have been an alcoholic for more than ten years.

In short, it can happen to anyone with a drinking problem; anyone can have the potential for DTs. There is no way to tell whether or not it might happen to you.

Delirium Tremens Statistics in the United States

Many alcoholics do not realize that:

  • The DTs can develop within one to four days after the last drink; although they have been known to begin after as long as ten days.
  • As many as 5% of people who experience DTs will not survive the condition.
  • The lifetime risk for developing DTs for alcoholics is as high as 10%.
  • Caucasian alcoholics tend to have a higher risk for delirium tremens than other nationalities.
  • The risk for death is higher among people with a very high fever, fluid imbalance or a co-occurring illness, such as trauma or pneumonia.

Sadly, most alcoholics have the mentality that it could not happen to them. The reality is that it does happen, every single day. It is best to get proper treatment, which in turn, will give you the best chance of avoiding DTs.

Can You Die From Alcohol Withdrawal?

Because of today's modern medical advances, dying from alcohol withdrawal is not as common as it once was. But that does not mean it cannot happen. It can; especially when someone refuses treatment.

Dr. Robert Schwartz is the Chairman of Family Medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. He says, somebody who's been a drinker and consumed a lot of alcohol for a number of years probably could have severe seizures.” He goes on to state that, “Such seizures may cause an individual to aspirate food (inhale it through the trachea) that comes up from their stomach, possibly leading to choking and death. Hitting your head during a seizure can also be lethal.” In addition, there is also the risk of heart arrhythmias, kidney or liver problems.

Alcohol may be toxic to the body, but humans are incredibly adaptable. Alcoholics develop a sense of homeostasis with alcohol when they drink regularly. Once it is taken away, that balance is upset, and the result can lead to death.

Alcoholic Celebrities Who Have Died From Alcohol Withdrawals

People are often surprised when they learn about celebrities who have died from alcohol withdrawal. Two people immediately come to mind – Amy Winehouse and Nelsan Ellis.

Prior to Amy Winehouse' death, people lived their lives in blissful ignorance about the dangers of alcohol withdrawal. The singer had a history of substance abuse, but sources say that it was definitely DTs that led to her untimely death. Her family indicates that she had been trying to stop drinking, which further confirms the facts.

Nelsan Ellis was best known for his recent role on the HBO show, True Blood. On the show, his character was portrayed as a bartender who was addicted to a drug they called “V.” It was ironic that he was battling his own addiction to alcohol in real life.

After several failed rehabilitation attempts, Ellis decided to try to quit drinking on his own. He suffered from heart, kidney and liver problems as a result, and that is what took his life.

The bottom line is that alcohol withdrawal has the potential to be deadly. It has already taken many lives, and there is no reason for you to suffer the same fate.

The Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

Like many people, you want to know the answer to the question that is on everyone's mind – how long does alcohol withdrawal last? The actual answer is that it depends. But there is a generic timeline that can give you a rough idea about what you can expect.

The first stage will probably begin within about 8 hours after your last drink. At first, you may just experience some nausea and vomiting. You may have some stomach pain and begin to feel depressed. You may feel tired and weak as well.

The second stage starts at about the 24-hour mark. You will notice that your blood pressure and body temperature increase. You may become anxious, irritable and/or have mood swings. There may also be some changes in your breathing rate.

The third stage is usually the most dangerous. It is during this stage that you are at risk for DTs. You may have many symptoms of the first two stages, along with possible seizures and hallucinations. You may feel really shaky and it may be hard for you to think clearly. This can last for about 72 hours.

After that, you should begin to feel better as symptoms begin to resolve. They probably will not all stop at once, but little by little, you will begin to feel more like yourself.

Your Options for Recovering From Alcoholism

While there are a few different ways that people choose to recover from alcoholism, they are not all effective or safe. In your research, you have probably come across all of the options that we will describe to you here.

Keep in mind that while it is your choice, it is best to get help from a professional to determine while one is right for you.

Treating Withdrawal Symptoms at Home

Some people decide to treat their withdrawal symptoms at home, by themselves. They do not want to enter into any type of professional program, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they work full time, or they have children at home they need to care for. Either way, stopping their use of alcohol at home seems to be the best option in their minds.

There are different methods that people utilize to stop drinking at home. They usually involve quitting cold turkey, but there are also people who will attempt to taper off alcohol. Either way can be dangerous.

At-Home Detox Kits

You can purchase detox kits online or at your local pharmacy in many cities across the United States. These products claim to be able to help people stop using substances like alcohol safely, while reducing their withdrawals.

The problem is that there is no real science to back these claims up. The kits themselves are not FDA approved, which means that they may be dangerous. There is nothing in them that can protect you against delirium tremens. It is best to choose a different method of recovery.

Home Remedies for Detoxing

You can find all kinds of information online about natural alcohol detox remedies. There are a lot of supplements, vitamins and detoxification drinks available that claim to help with withdrawal symptoms. Whether or not they do remains to be seen. Some people claim they work quite well, but the fact remains that they cannot protect against DTs.

Some of the recommended natural alcohol withdrawal treatments include:

  • Milk thistle and alpha lipoic acid to help the liver recover.
  • A Vitamin-B Complex supplement.
  • A Thiamine supplement.
  • Excessive amounts of Vitamin C.
  • Amino acids and/or L glutamine for cravings.

For many conditions, natural approaches can work well. But in the case of potential alcohol withdrawal, using them is just too risky. It is better to stick with the advice you receive from professionals.

Over the Counter Medications to Help With Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Sometimes people gravitate toward over the counter medications to help with their symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. For instance, they may take Tylenol or Advil to help with any headaches or body aches and pains. They may take Benadryl to help them get to sleep easier at night. While Unisom is a drug that is usually taken for sleep, it can also help ease nausea.

These medications are readily available, which means this is a popular method of getting through withdrawal. But it may still be dangerous to take on the challenge of detoxing from alcohol by yourself. At the very least, you should discuss your plans with your medical doctor.

Talking With Your Medical Doctor

Your medical doctor can be an excellent resource for you if you plan to stop drinking. They should be aware of your intentions, and they may be able to offer suggestions to you. Some will even prescribe alcohol withdrawal medications, such as Gabapentin, on an outpatient basis.

It is very likely that your doctor will offer you a referral for treatment. If that is the case, please take their advice. They would not tell you to go to detox and/or rehab if they did not feel you needed to go.

Professional Alcohol Detox

Finally, going to alcohol detox is the best way to recover if you are an alcoholic. This type of treatment allows you to get help for your withdrawal symptoms. Your doctor will talk with you about the protocol you should follow. You may notice that you do not experience many of the symptoms you are used to having.

The goal of detox is to flush those toxins out of your body quickly, but in the right way. At the same time, your treatment team will be working hard to keep you safe and ensure that you get through this period successfully.

The Benefits of Alcohol Detoxification Programs

There are a lot of benefits to going through an alcohol detox program for your recovery. You will find that:

  • It helps to have support from other people when you quit.
  • You get to learn from experts who have worked with many other people to help them quit drinking. They know what works and what does not.
  • You will have access to the most up-to-date and proven methods of detox.
  • You will feel better much faster than if you would have quit cold turkey or tapered down.
  • You may avoid DTs or any other possible complications associated with withdrawal.

Medications for Alcohol Withdrawal

There are a lot of different medications that can be given to help with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Some of them include:

  • Gabapentin
  • Librium
  • Valium
  • Clonidine
  • Atenolol

One of the newest drugs is called Vivitrol. It is given as an injection that you receive once every month. It works for the entire 30 days, as a little bit of the medication is released into your system at a time.

Many alcohol rehab programs are starting to offer Vivitrol services to their patients or clients. This drug has shown great promise as being an effective treatment for alcoholism.

Holistic Detox Programs

Most programs will include holistic detoxification methods as a part of their treatment plans as well. This might include meditation, dietary changes and regular exercise.

The body is quite able to detox itself under the right conditions. While medical supervision is certainly needed for alcoholics, holistic treatments are quite beneficial. They can shorten the duration of withdrawal significantly.

Can Alcohol Withdrawal be Avoided?

Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid alcohol withdrawal once you are an alcoholic. It is inevitable that you will experience it in one way or another. The only thing you can do is be prepared when it happens. That means making sure you get professional help.

Is There a Cure for These Withdrawals?

There is no cure for withdrawal symptoms, although there are many ways to treat them. Sometimes people state that taking the right combination of medications alleviates their symptoms altogether. Others say that the drugs make them more bearable. Either way, it is still the best way to get through detox.

Should Alcoholics be Concerned About Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome?

In a word, yes. Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) can happen to alcoholics, and it does happen all the time. This refers to the return of withdrawal after you have been sober for a period of time.

When sometimes come back, they are usually pretty severe; though not bad enough to require hospitalization in most cases. The risk of PAWS is one reason to stay in close contact with your doctor and other members of your treatment team. They will help you get through it if it does happen to you.

What is the First Step in Seeking Help for Alcohol Withdrawal?

If you are ready to stop drinking, but you are nervous about alcohol withdrawal, your concerns are valid. Here at The Evergreen at Northpoint, we can get you the help you need to start your recovery.

While we do not offer detox services, we can provide you with a referral. We can also assist you if you feel that Vivitrol might be something you would like to try. Once you are finished with detox, it is possible that you might be interested in our intensive outpatient program.

Are You Addicted? Take a Quiz

Take one of our addiction quizzes to find out if you or someone you care about needs help today.

Alcoholism does not have to rule your life. Also, you do not need to live in fear of alcohol withdrawal. Contact us today to get the help you need.