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  • Acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome or AWS is your body’s reaction if you stop drinking alcohol suddenly. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal only happen if you have an alcohol dependence when you quit drinking.

    Acute alcohol withdrawal can damage your physical and mental health. However, not everyone will go through all the effects of alcohol withdrawal. The higher your alcohol consumption is, the higher chance you may have of experiencing more side effects.

    Causes Of Acute Alcohol Withdrawal

    Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which slows down activity in the brain. It mostly acts on the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter and its receptors, which naturally slow down the brain.

    If alcohol is taken away from a dependent patient, GABA levels in the brain can go down greatly. Without GABA in the brain, the nervous system can get excited to potentially dangerous levels, causing hyperactivity and other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

    Acute Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

    Alcohol withdrawal starts quickly after alcohol intake stops. You likely know if you will go through withdrawal in a matter of hours, which is when symptoms tend to start.

    Alcohol withdrawal varies from patient to patient. Its lingering effects can make it difficult for patients to quit alcohol completely.

    Withdrawal Symptoms

    Withdrawal symptoms can start as soon as 6 hours after your last drink. The symptoms that start at this time are mild symptoms such as headache, anxiety, and hand tremors. After 12 to 24 hours have passed, alcohol withdrawal seizures may start in some patients.

    After 48 hours, the most severe withdrawal symptoms known as delirium tremens (also known as alcohol withdrawal delirium or DTs) can set in. DTs can change your vital signs, cause tactile and auditory hallucinations, and maybe life-threatening without immediate medical care.

    Acute withdrawal symptoms can last for up to 2 weeks.

    Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)

    If you have gotten through alcohol withdrawal, you may still experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), where symptoms pop up without warning for weeks or even months after you already quit alcohol.

    Symptoms of PAWS are often similar to symptoms of acute withdrawal. PAWS can last for months or years, even in sober patients.

    Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

    Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a separate medical condition from alcohol withdrawal. It is caused by a lack of vitamin B1, also known as thiamine. Many people who have an alcohol dependence also lack thiamine, leading some experts to suggest a link between the two.

    Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome often comes with a number of memory problems. Disorientation and impairment are common symptoms, similar to the effects of alcohol.

    Treating Acute Alcohol Withdrawal

    Alcohol withdrawal is often one part of an alcohol use disorder (AUD). People struggling with AUD may benefit from a medical treatment program where their symptoms can constantly be managed and addressed. Successful treatment may start with a medical detox program.

    Many treatment options exist for the different side effects of alcohol withdrawal. Benzodiazepines like chlordiazepoxide, diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam can manage many withdrawal symptoms. Anticonvulsants can reduce the intensity and frequency of seizures.     

    Other treatment options may include psychotherapy, support groups, and taking vitamin supplements. To find an alcohol addiction treatment program that works for you or a loved one, talk to your healthcare provider or contact us today.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2022 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Industrial Psychiatry Journal - Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review
    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal
    StatPearls - Alcohol Withdrawal

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on June 24, 2021
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