Alcohol withdrawal syndrome occurs when a person abruptly stops drinking after heavy alcohol use and may trigger life-threatening health complications.
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What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?
One of the most clear signs of alcohol dependency is experiencing alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal is the changes the body goes through after a person suddenly stops drinking after prolonged and heavy alcohol use. Over time, both the body and the brain becomes dependent on drinking frequency and patterns. When you abruptly stop drinking, your body is deprived of the effects of alcohol and requires time to adjust to functioning without it. This adjustment period causes the painful side effects of alcohol withdrawal, such as shakes, insomnia, nausea, and anxiety.
In addition to uncomfortable side effects, alcohol withdrawal syndrome can trigger life-threatening health complications. Whether you’ve been drinking for weeks, months, or years, it’s possible to experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Professional care from a specialized alcohol rehab facility is highly recommended for those attempting to quit drinking as withdrawal can be extremely dangerous.
The Causes of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol affects multiple bodily functions that results in alcohol withdrawal when attempting to stop. First and foremost, excessive drinking excites and irritates the central nervous system. Alcohol has a sedative effect on the brain in which it suppresses certain neurotransmitters, causing people to feel at ease after drinking. This is why when consuming alcohol, people experience initial feelings of happiness, increased sociability, and relaxation.
In a heavy, long-term drinker, the brain is almost continually exposed to the depressant effects of alcohol. This causes the person to develop a dependence on the substance. Once the body becomes dependent on alcohol, it requires more and more of the substance to produce the same effects. When someone abruptly quits drinking, the neurotransmitters are no longer inhibited by alcohol and the brain scrambles to adjust to the new chemical imbalance – causing the debilitating side effects of withdrawal which are separate from the “feel good” effects of alcohol consumption.
Alcohol withdrawal side effects vary from person to person. Many people are hesitant to quit drinking because of the thought of experiencing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms is scary. However, it’s important to note that alcohol addiction treatment specialists can provide prescription medications to help relieve pain. By reducing withdrawal symptoms, you will be able to focus on recovery and getting better.
Don’t let the fear of possible withdrawal symptoms prevent you from getting the help you deserve. Learn more about treating alcoholism and support options by calling us today.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline of Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can occur as early as two hours after your last drink. Typically, symptoms will peak within the first 24 to 48 hours upon cessation. This is when you may experience the most uncomfortable of withdrawal symptoms, such as insomnia, rapid heartbeat, changes in blood pressure, sweating, tremors, and fever.
While some people experience very few withdrawal symptoms, others may suffer from more serious side effects. For example, delirium tremens is one of the most severe of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. It can surface within the first 48 hours after your last drink and involves confusion, severe shaking, hallucinations, and high blood pressure. Although delirium tremens is uncommon, it can be life-threatening. Heavy drinkers who suddenly stop drinking may experience any range of dangerous symptoms, so it’s important for those experiencing withdrawal to undergo medically-assisted detox.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms typically manifest according to the following timeline:
Six to 12 hours post-ingestion
- Nausea and vomiting
12 to 24 hours post-ingestion
- Hand tremors
48 hours post-ingestion
- High blood pressure
- Tactile, auditory, and visual hallucinations
- High fever and excessive sweating
- Delirium tremens
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal typically improve within five days, though a small number of people may have prolonged symptoms. The severity and duration of alcohol withdrawal symptoms are impacted by several factors, including frequency of drinking, amount consumed during drinking, length of time drinking, medical history, and co-occurring health conditions. A person is more likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms if they’ve abused drugs in conjunction with alcohol.
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Acute Alcohol Withdrawal
Over the course of the first few days and weeks after someone stops drinking alcohol, he or she may experience acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome refers to the common withdrawal symptoms a heavy drinker experiences when they suddenly reduce the amount of alcohol they drink after prolonged periods of heavy use. During this time, you’re most at risk of temporarily losing consciousness, developing delirium tremens, and having seizures. Because of the life-threatening health complications that can arise during acute alcohol withdrawal, it is recommended that you never attempt to quit on your own and that you instead stay at a hospital or a specialized rehab facility for treatment. Medical professional can assess your mental and physical health frequently throughout the day to make sure symptoms do not escalate.
There are many facilities that have experience in treating acute alcohol withdrawal. These programs have a team of specialists that will help minimize your withdrawal symptoms, prevent complications and focus on your well-being. Contact a treatment expert to find the right alcohol treatment facility for you.
Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)
After the initial alcohol withdrawal symptoms have subsided, some people may experience prolonged side effects. This phase is less common and is known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). PAWS involves withdrawal symptoms that occur after acute withdrawal and can make post-rehab life challenging for some individuals. Depending on the severity of your alcohol abuse, PAWS can last anywhere from a few weeks to a year.
Common symptoms of PAWS include:
- Irritability and emotional outbursts
- Low energy
- Trouble sleeping
- Memory problems
- Increased accident proneness
- Delayed reflexes
- Intense cravings
- Chronic nausea
PAWS is one of the leading causes of relapse for individuals that have completed alcohol addiction treatment. Many people experience symptoms of PAWS in cyclical waves – one day you feel fine, and the next you’re plagued by low energy and intense cravings for alcohol. The spontaneity of this withdrawal phase can make resisting temptation hard. However, it’s important to note that each PAWS episode is often limited to only a few days at a time. If an individual can hang on during that time frame, the symptoms will resolve just as quickly as they appeared.
How to Safely Treat Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can shift quickly and violently – you can experience minor symptoms to extremely severe side effects in a matter of hours. There are many alcohol treatment programs that focus on helping individuals overcome drinking problems, no matter how minor or how serious. Specialized rehab facilities offer many benefits to those struggling with alcohol addiction. For example, treatment specialists will be able to help alleviate some of the most painful of withdrawal symptoms, as well as provide 24/7 support through the entire recovery process.
As there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to treating alcohol abuse, recovery programs usually consist of:
Inpatient rehab facilities offer a safe, supervised environment for patients struggling with alcohol addiction. With 24-hour care, this is the most intensive form of treatment and typically entails 30, 60 or 90-day programs.
Outpatient rehab allows patients to attend to their daily responsibilities while in recovery. This option is best suited for those with less severe forms of alcohol abuse since individuals will be around drinking triggers and other influences.
To help relieve uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, many treatment programs offer medication-assisted therapy. Certain prescribed medications can treat alcohol withdrawal, allowing patients to focus on other aspects of recovery.
Alcohol rehab counselors provide support during the highs and lows of alcohol withdrawal. Counselors also look to see if there are underlying factors that may have influenced an alcohol addiction and coach patients on how to work through various matters.
Recovery continues long after rehab. Support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, offer an outlet to discuss treatment goals and challenges with other people who are in alcohol recovery. This will provide you with motivation to maintain your sobriety.
After the alcohol withdrawal stage, you will transition into other treatment therapies, activities and programs. These will provide you with the tools and resources to prevent triggers, continue on-going recovery and live a well-balanced life after rehab.
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome affects nearly two million Americans each year.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome can surface as early as two hours after a person’s last drink.
Alcohol addiction rehabs offer a safe, secure and comfortable environment during the withdrawal phase.
Don’t Let Fear Keep You from Getting Help
Although alcohol withdrawal can be a dangerous and painful process, it is a necessary step on the road to recovery. When conducted under the supervision of medical professionals, alcohol withdrawal is a much safer and easier process. Contact a treatment expert today to find out what options are available to you.
- Medical Reviewer — Last Reviewed: March 21, 2019
UW Health. Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). November 2016. http://www.uwhealth.org/healthfacts/psychiatry/7228.pdf
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol Alert. November 2016. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm
Highland Ridge Hospital. (n.d.) Alcohol Poisoning and Withdrawals. November 2016. http://www.highlandridgehospital.com/addiction/alcohol/withdrawal-overdose
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2015). Alcohol Withdrawal. November 2016. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000764.htm
Bayard, Mcintyre, Hill, Woodside. (2004). Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. November 2016. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2004/0315/p1443.html
Swanson, Jeanene. (2014). The Condition Many Recovering Addicts and Alcoholics Don’t Know About. November 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/12/post-acute-withdrawal-syndrome-addicts-alcoholics_n_4775009.html
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