Individuals who stop or rapidly reduce alcohol intake after a period of heavy drinking may experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Alcohol withdrawal is a serious condition that can cause anxiety, tremors, seizures, and hallucinations.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms likely begin about 6 hours after your last drink and peak within 72 hours.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
Alcohol withdrawal is a complex condition that can range from mild to severe, depending on the individual’s health, frequency of alcohol use, and length of drinking period.
People with a long history of alcohol abuse or medical conditions are at a higher risk of experiencing severe symptoms.
Acute Alcohol Withdrawal
Acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms appear within hours after drinking has stopped. Although acute withdrawal symptoms usually peak within 72 hours, mild symptoms may continue for weeks.
Stage 1 (6-12 Hours After The Last Drink)
Symptoms may include:
- trouble sleeping
- stomach upset
- rapid or irregular heart rate
- loss of appetite
- high blood pressure
- mood swings
Stage 2 (12-24 Hours After The Last Drink)
Mild withdrawal symptoms may worsen and you may begin to experience hallucinations. These can be visual, auditory, or tactile. Hallucinations are a false perception that something is real and can lead to dangerous reactions.
Stage 3 (24-48 Hours After The Last Drink)
People who drink heavily may experience alcohol withdrawal seizures 1-2 days after they stop drinking. Seizures can cause convulsions and a loss of consciousness, which can be life-threatening.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal seizures include:
- uncontrollable jerking of arms or legs
- loss of consciousness
- stiffening of the body
Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium (Delirium Tremens)
If you drink heavily for a long period of time, you increase the risk of experiencing delirium tremens (DTs). DTs are a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that can appear 48-72 hours after stopping alcohol use.
Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:
- severe confusion and disorientation
- visual hallucinations
- irregular heartbeat
- high blood pressure
- high body temperature
Delirium tremens are a medical emergency. Mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms can quickly progress into DTs. If you recognize withdrawal symptoms in yourself or a loved one, seek medical attention immediately.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that slows brain function and affects how neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) communicate. Excessive drinking can affect the levels of neurotransmitters associated with mood, cognition, and other important functions.
When you drink heavily or for a long period of time, your central nervous system adapts to these changes. Your body may become alcohol dependent, which means it believes alcohol is necessary to function.
When you suddenly stop or reduce alcohol consumption, it takes time for your brain to heal and maintain a healthy balance. This can result in uncomfortable or dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Although severe symptoms may subside within a few days, mild symptoms can last much longer.
Alcohol Withdrawal Risk Factors
Alcohol affects everyone differently and the severity of withdrawal will depend on several factors. Generally, the amount of alcohol consumed and the frequency of drinking have the biggest impact on withdrawal symptoms.
However, the following factors can also affect the severity of withdrawal:
- history of seizures
- health conditions (including head injury or infection)
- history of alcohol dependence and withdrawal
- co-occurring disorders
Detoxing from alcohol on your own is not recommended because of the risk of severe complications. Severe symptoms like seizures and DTs can rapidly progress and early medical attention is essential.
An alcohol detox program can help you safely through the difficult stages of alcohol withdrawal. A team of healthcare specialists will provide support while monitoring your symptoms.
If you have severe symptoms, you may receive sedative medication to prevent seizures and decrease agitation.
Medication that may be used during detoxification includes:
- benzodiazepines (Ativan, Diazepam)
- barbiturates (phenobarbital)
- anticonvulsants (Tegretol, Neurontin)
- vitamins (thiamine, multivitamin)
Once you complete the detox process, you may choose to continue with long-term treatment. If you have continuously struggled to stop drinking and cannot control the amount you drink, you may have signs of an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment
If you have an alcohol use disorder, a detox program is not likely to be sufficient in helping you abstain from alcohol. Treatment programs are designed to help you develop healthy coping skills and improve your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
If you decide to proceed with a treatment program, an addiction specialist will work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan. Treatment options may include an inpatient/residential program, outpatient program, and/or support groups.
Your doctor may prescribe a medication to help with alcohol cravings and prevent relapse. These medications are intended to be combined with therapy as part of a comprehensive treatment program.
FDA-approved to treat alcohol use disorder include:
If you would like more information on alcohol use disorder treatment options, please contact us today to speak with a specialist.