Overcoming Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
When you stop drinking, your body goes through a series of changes that can be uncomfortable or even painful at times. You may experience headaches, nausea, irritability, anxiety, confusion, and more as your body adjusts and tries to get back to normal.
This process can last from hours to weeks, depending on how much you drank before stopping. It’s called alcohol withdrawal because it involves getting rid of all traces of alcohol in the bloodstream.
Withdrawing from alcohol is a serious and potentially dangerous process. People who drink heavily have a high risk of becoming physically dependent on alcohol. In this case, their bodies need the substance to function properly. When they suddenly quit drinking, however, things change drastically.
Breaking Down Alcohol in the Body
Their bodies try to break down all the chemicals used by alcohol and eliminate them from the system. If you’re not careful about what happens when you withdraw from alcohol, it could lead to death.
Here we’ll look at some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, timelines associated with these symptoms, and ways to manage withdrawal safely. You’ll also find information regarding recovery and steps to take to find treatment so you can avoid the continuing health risks associated with alcohol use disorder.
Withdrawing from Alcohol: The Proven Risks
If you are dependent on alcohol, then you are at risk of developing withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms will be extremely unpleasant when you attempt to stop drinking. Often this deters alcoholics from stopping their use of the substance, but Icarus Behavioral Health want you to know that help is available, and to read on to find out more about alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
What exactly are alcohol withdrawals, and what are the most intense symptoms?
In recent studies by the National Institutes of Health it was revealed that nearly 7% of Americans who have ever had a drink will develop an alcohol use disorder, meaning they would benefit from some type of assistance for their alcohol use. In many of these cases, there is also the presence of dual diagnosis: which means someone also suffers from a mental health issue along with an alcohol use disorder.
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The Definition of Alcohol Use Disorder
To understand how to aid the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, you need to understand the definition of alcohol use disorder. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines an alcohol use disorder as “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”
Alcohol use disorder is defined as a chronic disease that’s characterized by uncontrolled drinking and preoccupation with alcohol. Additionally, the term alcoholism is defined as the inability to control drinking due to both a physical and emotional dependence on alcohol.
By definition, any individual who has challenges with their alcohol intake because of physical or mental elements may fit the criteria for alcohol use disorder.
This could even cover individuals who arrive home in the evening and have two or three glasses of wine. Even if they rarely become intoxicated, alcohol use disorder could be a part of the equation.
Any time someone suffers from alcohol use disorder, they run the risk of developing alcohol withdrawal syndrome. The seriousness of this condition depends heavily on the amount of alcohol the user ingests regularly. Additionally, the overall length of time the user has abused alcohol factors into the severity of withdrawals as well.
What are Alcohol Withdrawals?
When you drink alcohol heavily, you will experience different mental and physical problems. Although these frequently happen after weeks, months, or years of drinking, they even show themselves to an extent after one heavy night of drinking, in the form of a hangover. If you are a heavy drinker, then you may notice these feelings as soon as you stop or cut back from alcohol. Symptoms can be wide-ranging and vary from mild to serious or even life-threatening.
Alcohol withdrawals are the painful side effects that individuals experience when going through detox. Withdrawals have a wide range of symptoms and can vary from minor to emergency level.
When someone drinks consistently over a long period, the body becomes physically dependent on alcohol. Once they cross this line, the individual can no longer function normally without the presence of alcohol in their system.
It’s worth noting that not all individuals who run the risk of developing alcohol withdrawal fit the profile of what most members of society would deem as an “alcoholic.” They don’t have to remain intoxicated the majority of the time, and it may not even seem like they have an issue with alcohol use.
However, anyone fitting the criteria of someone who suffers from alcohol use disorder can potentially suffer from the side effects of withdrawal. What is alcohol use disorder, and what are the criteria for this diagnosis?
The Causes of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol has a depressive effect on the human system. It slows brain function and the nervous system. Over time, the central nervous system can adjust to having alcohol in the body at all times. The body will continue to push the brain to stay awake and keep nerves sending signals to the brain. If you suddenly stop drinking alcohol, your brain will remain in the same state, which is what causes withdrawal.
What actually causes someone to go into alcohol withdrawal? The answer isn’t simple. However, certain factors make people vulnerable to developing alcohol withdrawal syndrome. For example, if you’ve been a regular drinker for a consistent period of time, your chances of alcohol withdrawal are fairly high.
Other risk factors include a history of binge drinking, prior issues with alcohol or substance abuse, and even a family history of alcohol abuse disorder.
In addition, heavy drinkers often develop more severe cases of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Quitting cold turkey without any tapering or medically-assisted detox can trigger further health complications.
How is Alcohol Withdrawal Diagnosed?
Alcohol withdrawal is primarily diagnosed by both history and physical exam. Sometimes blood tests are also used. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Tremors in your hands
- Fast heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Dilated pupils
- Fast breathing
There is also a method used by doctors to assess your symptoms. This is called the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol (CIWA-Ar). This scale uses 10 questions to measure the symptoms of:
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Mood swings
- Not being able to think clearly
- Having nightmares
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty sleeping
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Appetite loss
- Faster heart rate
- Pale skin
Getting Help for Alcohol Withdrawal in Albuquerque, NM
Alcohol withdrawal is different for everyone, and the severity of withdrawal from alcohol will depend on various factors. You may not even know that you need help until you experience these symptoms. Your treatment may depend on how much alcohol you drink, how often you use it, and any other co-occurring disorders you have.
Withdrawing from alcohol may feel like a horrible experience, and it can even result in death. If you do not get help for alcohol withdrawal, it may end up hurting your efforts for recovery. Unmanaged withdrawal can be dangerous, and it may require medical care to keep you safe during detox.
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What is Moderate vs Excessive Drinking?
Moderate drinking is normal for many people in the United States, but there is a difference between moderate and excessive drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines moderate drinking as one drink per day for women, and two drinks each day for men. Moderate drinking is considered safe for most people who are of legal drinking age. One drink is classified as:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 5 ounces of 80-proof distilled liquor or spirits
When it comes to excessive drinking, it is defined by the CDC as heavy drinking or binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as consuming multiple drinks during one occasion. Technically, for women, binge drinking is four or more drinks in one night, and for men, it’s five or more.
Heavy drinking is when women have eight or more drinks in one week and men have 15 or more drinks per week. Although surprising, the majority of people who drink excessively may not actually have an alcohol dependency or alcohol use disorder.
How Does Alcohol Withdrawal Work?
For someone who is heavily drinking, stopping the use of alcohol ends up leading to withdrawal symptoms. Many people use alcohol to relieve anxiety and relax, but alcohol dependency is a different situation.
Alcohol increases the effects of GABA, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for creating feelings of calm and euphoria. GABA also decreases glutamate, which is another neurotransmitter that creates excitability. Heavy drinking makes it harder to increase GABA and decrease glutamate. This means that you will need to consume more alcohol for the same outcome. Your body will become used to having alcohol in the body and then produce more glutamate and less GABA.
If you stop drinking suddenly, then you won’t be producing these two neurotransmitters. Despite this, you will still be overproducing glutamate and underproducing GABA. The result is being hyper, anxious, restless, and even shaky. As a heavy drinker, your symptoms may be even more severe, and progress to tremors or even seizures.
What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?
During alcohol withdrawal, symptoms fluctuate in severity, depending on several factors. Different stages mark the occurrence of various symptoms as well, with these stages lasting anywhere 24 to 72 hours-plus.
Individuals who don’t drink as frequently, or have as long of a history, may experience more moderate symptoms like:
- Lack of energy
- Hot flashes
Heavier drinkers may also experience these; however, these individuals may experience a string of more dangerous symptoms, including:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Chest pains
Regardless of how heavy or moderately the individual with alcohol abuse disorder consumes, intense cravings will persist throughout the detox period and after. However, heavier drinkers are at risk for more dangerous side effects of alcohol withdrawal.
Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome Overview
Alcohol has a specific timeline that goes along with its use, as well as its discontinuation. Because of this, some of the withdrawal symptoms may fade off quickly, while others may have longer effects. Some can even be very painful for long periods of time.
Getting help for your alcohol detox can sometimes mean that you can avoid potentially life-threatening issues. For certain types of substances, medical detox is a helpful part of early recovery. This pertains to alcohol. Having a good medical detox protocol means you will work with doctors who can administer medication and help you to manage your withdrawal process.
Severe Withdrawal Symptoms
One of the most severe consequences of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens. Also known as DTs, around 3% to 5% of people who withdraw from heavy drinking experience these symptoms. It can be fatal, so it is essential to be treated for alcohol withdrawal if they occur.
Symptoms of delirium tremens include:
- Extreme agitation
- Extreme confusion
- High blood pressure
Hospitals and detox centers have staff that can understand your symptoms and can help to treat you with your alcohol use disorder and DTs.
What are the Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal?
There are many causes of alcohol withdrawal, but it is pretty commonly due to being an alcoholic. Tapering alcohol intake can help with alcohol withdrawal, but this should be done after a full clinical withdrawal assessment.
If you have developed a significant level of dependence, withdrawal may be difficult and even dangerous. The symptoms may develop within hours if you are heavily addicted, especially if you have benzodiazepines and alcohol in your system. This is why you should never quit “cold turkey”. Seeking help is the best answer.
Alcohol withdrawal can result in numerous dangerous and life-threatening situations. If it’s not a direct result of the symptoms, complications arising from the symptoms can lead to additional dangerous and life-threatening situations.
The situation can be extremely frustrating when you have the shakes since muscles often refuse to work correctly. The resulting shakiness makes moving around difficult, especially standing upright.
Stomach acid and bile reflux due to dehydration can produce a burning sensation in the esophagus. This can end up causing severe complications later in life if the problem continues. Eventually, this bile can erode the lining of your esophagus and stomach.
What are Post Acute Withdrawals from Alcohol?
As mentioned earlier, alcohol withdrawals usually happen during early sobriety but sometimes occur later, too. This is what’s known as post-acute withdrawal, and it happens months into recovery at random times.
Typically, people don’t realize they have developed alcohol dependence until they decide to kick the habit completely. This is when the effects of alcohol withdrawal syndrome begin to take hold, many times without the user even being aware of what they’re experiencing.
If left untreated, alcohol withdrawal syndrome can progress quickly. An estimated 90 percent of those affected will experience five or more symptoms within three days of beginning detox.
These symptoms typically peak within 24 hours and subside within 72 hours. However, everyone reacts differently, which means each person experiences his own unique set of symptoms.
Why do People Become Addicted to Alcohol?
Although the alcohol withdrawal timeline is different for everyone, long-term drinking effects can be very serious, including cirrhosis and liver damage. You might even eventually suffer from vascular constriction and alcohol use disorder, and other health risks of continued drinking.
When someone drinks alcohol regularly, their brain gets used to the substance. The more you drink, the higher chance you have to become dependent. This means that to function and feel “normal” a drink will need to happen.
Continued abuse of drugs or alcohol will interfere with the chemistry in your brain. This will result in both drug cravings and dependence. Detoxing from alcohol is different than detoxing from other drugs, which is why you need a special addiction plan.
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The Risks of At Home Detox from Alcohol
When withdrawing from alcohol, diarrhea and constipation can turn regular trips to the bathroom into extended visits. Numb lips prevent proper mastication of solid foods. Saliva production decreases, causing drooling, sores, and infections. Dry throat prevents swallowing fluids needed to replenish moisture lost through frequent coughing fits.
Despite the severity of the symptoms mentioned above, one particular side effect of alcohol withdrawal is especially dangerous. Delirium tremens (DTs) is a condition that includes extreme paranoia, hallucinations, fever, and high blood pressure.
Delirium tremens often produce effects similar to sepsis or a severe head injury. If left untreated, the result can be a respiratory or cardiovascular collapse, leading to death.
It is possible to take measures to avoid or at least reduce the severity of these symptoms if you’re aware of the alcohol withdrawal timeline. Understanding the timeline allows you to prepare for the worst part of withdrawal, and choosing to detox in a medically supervised setting ensures the utmost safety as well as much comfort as possible through this otherwise grueling process.
A Potential Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
The length of time spent recovering varies greatly based on several variables, such as how much one drinks prior to choosing recovery, whether they have underlying medical conditions, and how well they take care of themselves once sober.
Most clients spend two to four weeks abstinent, although others report staying away for up to six months or longer. Some people feel better sooner than others do, though. And while most people recover fully from alcohol withdrawal, some clients may experience post-acute withdrawals.
Post-acute withdrawals can go on for six months or more. These late-occurring periods of withdrawal include the random return of symptoms like nausea, sweating, and an intense craving for alcohol. However, these periods are short-lived and usually pass after an hour or less.
While every client is different, and there is no guarantee for how long the alcohol withdrawal timeline is, you can expect a period of about 10 to 14 days, with the first seven days being the most intense.
In the most severe cases, it’s during the first seven days that clients have the highest chance of experiencing DTs. However, after the worst symptoms pass, the last few days are a continual decline until all side effects dissipate completely.
There are steps to take for withdrawal if you’re going through this process at home without the assistance of medical professionals. In the following section, we’ll provide you with a list of the best course of action for going through the symptoms of withdrawal.
What are the Steps to Take When Withdrawing from Alcohol?
By preparing for withdrawal, you can potentially make conditions more comfortable. The following list should be used as a strategy to relieve pain and discomfort during withdrawal and detox. However, it’s important to note this isn’t medical advice, and you should still consult your physician before attempting to detox.
- Make sure you have a comfortable place to detox where you’ll have someone to monitor your condition. If possible, acquire a blood pressure cuff to ensure your vitals don’t spike.
- Purchase items that will assist during withdrawal – cases of water to remain hydrated, over-the-counter medications (Immodium for your stomach, Benadryl for anxiety and rest, Ibuprofen, and Tylenol for pain and fever), and light foods like soup and crackers.
- As mentioned previously, consult with your physician before going through the detox process. It may be possible for them to prescribe you certain medications to assist during this period.
- Have an emergency plan in place in case your situation declines. The individual(s) monitoring you should be aware of the signs indicating the need for medical professionals. They should either be prepared to take you to the ER or call 911.
- If you have children or other obligations, you should ask a family member to help get them on and off the bus or provide transportation to and from school. You might be indisposed for several days, and it’s important to make preparations for this beforehand.
If you or someone you love is having challenges with alcohol abuse disorder, it is important that you make a plan for detox to avoid the complications from continued drinking.
The Health Risks of Continued Drinking
Significant risks exist from continuing to drink after a considerable length of time. The longer you drink, the higher your odds are of developing serious health complications.
Some of the following conditions of continued drinking include:
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Liver and stomach cancer
- Heart disease
- Cognitive and neurological issues
Seeking treatment for alcohol misuse sooner than later can mitigate the risks of developing these challenges.
Seeking Treatment for Alcohol Misuse
Seeking treatment for alcohol misuse can significantly lower, if not eliminate, the chances of developing these long-term risks. After detox, the best chances of success come from inpatient or outpatient treatment.
Inpatient and outpatient treatment services provide clients the chance to participate in therapies with substance abuse counselors who educate them in substance abuse. The best course of action is finding a treatment facility that specializes in mental health therapy. This allows clients and therapists to get to the center of the clients’ alcohol or substance abuse issues.
Long-term Sobriety from Alcohol is Possible with Icarus!
When you choose the right treatment facility, long-term sobriety from alcohol is a real possibility. At Icarus Behavioral Health, not only do we believe in this possibility, but we help you achieve it.
Icarus provides a comprehensive approach to healing from alcohol use disorders with a compassionate staff that crafts individualized treatment plans for all of our clients. Contact a member of our admissions staff now to find out how we can help you achieve long-term recovery.