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.
What exactly are alcohol withdrawals, and what are the most intense symptoms?
What are Alcohol Withdrawals?
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?
Definition of Alcohol Use Disorder
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.
Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome Overview
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is defined as an individual’s symptoms during alcohol detox. Many physicians and rehabs use a scale to rate the severity of alcohol withdrawal syndrome to assess the client’s physical condition in question.
What are the Causes of Alcohol 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.
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.
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.
The Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal
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.
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 the 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 chances 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.
Steps to Take for Withdrawal 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.
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.