Alcohol Withdrawal: Symptoms, Timeline, and Treatment
Alcohol withdrawal can occur when a person who is physically dependent on alcohol abruptly cuts back or stops drinking altogether.1 Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are extremely variable and can range from mild to severe.2, 3 Mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include trouble sleeping, anxiety, irritability, and lack of appetite, while severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include elevated blood pressure and heart rate, nausea and vomiting, sweating, tremors, and more.2, 3
Alcohol withdrawal can have several medical complications, including seizures and even death, which is one reason why attempting to quit “cold turkey” without the help of medical professionals is not safe.3
If you or someone you care about is ready to quit drinking, it’s important to talk to a doctor first, as they will be able to recommend treatment that will keep you as comfortable and safe as possible during the detox process.
What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal refers to the symptoms that can occur when a person who is physically dependent on alcohol abruptly cuts back or stops drinking.4
The cause of alcohol withdrawal is dependence, a physiological adaptation of the body to a substance, wherein the body becomes so used to the drug being present in the system that when the individual cuts back on their use or quits, withdrawal symptoms emerge. With significant levels of physiological dependence, a person may continue to compulsively drink or use drugs to avoid unwanted withdrawal symptoms.5
Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are extremely variable and can range from mild to severe.3 Several factors can influence the severity of alcohol withdrawal including age, general health, nutritional factors, and if a person has any co-occurring medical or mental health conditions.3
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include:2, 3, 6
- Agitation and/or irritability.
- Impaired concentration and judgment.
- Loss of appetite.
- Nausea and/or vomiting.
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate.
- Sensitivity to light and sound.
- Tremor or shakiness.
- Sleep issues (e.g., insomnia, nightmares, or vivid dreams).
- Fever and/or sweating.
- Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there).
These symptoms can appear at different stages of the alcohol withdrawal timeline or not at all depending on the person. With severe alcohol withdrawal, more symptoms may be present and last for a longer amount of time.
Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal
While many people experience moderate or mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms, some people experience life-threatening complications, including dysregulation of body temperature, blood pressure, and pulse as well as seizures and delirium tremens (DTs).3 People who develop DTs may experience confusion, disorientation, and hallucinations as well as severe autonomic nervous system hyperactivity.3, 6, 7
Wernicke-Korsakoff (WKS) is a condition involving a combination of 2 different but closely related disorders: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Although not a complication of alcohol withdrawal, it commonly occurs during this timeframe.7 It results from a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1) from long-term alcohol use and can cause a variety of symptoms including eye abnormalities, confusion, tremors, coma, and death.8, 9
Fortunately, many symptoms can be reversed if detected and treated promptly.8 However, if the condition progresses, permanent brain damage and memory impairment can occur. 9
What Happens When You Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey?
When a person is thinking about stopping their drug use, they may consider quitting alcohol cold turkey. To quit alcohol cold turkey means to completely stop using the drug without any tapering or weaning—to go from use of the drug to no use at all. When this occurs, individuals have the potential to experience withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable, painful, and even potentially dangerous so it is very important that you only stop alcohol use with the help of a medical professional.3
How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?
How long alcohol withdrawal lasts can vary from person to person depending on several factors. While there are not alcohol withdrawal stages that are set in stone, a general alcohol withdrawal timeline may be as follows:3, 10
- 6-12 hours after a person’s last drink, alcohol withdrawal starts, and mild symptoms including anxiety, headache, difficulty sleeping, sweating, and upset stomach arise.
- 12-24 hours after a person’s last drink, more moderate symptoms may begin including auditory, visual, or tactile hallucinations.
- 24-48 hours after a person’s last drink, mild and moderate symptoms may have become less intense or have resolved. People who experience withdrawal seizures typically do so 24-48 hours after their last drink.
- 48-72 hours after a person’s last drink, delirium tremens may appear, as well as other symptoms including agitation, hallucinations, high blood pressure, low-grade fever, and elevated heart rate.
Although rare, a person can experience persistent alcohol withdrawal-related symptoms for months, which can lead to relapse.2 A formal detox, however, can help many people fully recover.11
Who Is at Risk for Alcohol Withdrawal?
Anyone who is physically dependent on alcohol can be at risk of experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Among people who are physically dependent on alcohol, around 50% will experience some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.12
Several factors can influence a person’s risk of prolonged or severe alcohol withdrawal such as:6, 7
- Their pattern of alcohol use (e.g., how long and how much they have been drinking).
- Prior detoxifications.
- Prior seizures.
- Prior episodes of delirium tremens.
- Co-occurring medical or mental health conditions related to alcohol misuse.
- Genetic influences.
Everyone is different and it can be hard to know who will and will not experience complications, so getting professional care and supervision during alcohol withdrawal is often recommended.
Diagnosing Alcohol Withdrawal
Only a medical professional can accurately diagnose alcohol use disorder and alcohol withdrawal. If you think you are experiencing an AUD or withdrawal, speak to your primary care doctor so they can help you. They will speak to you about your medical and drinking history, as well as your symptoms. This will allow them to have a greater understanding of your problem with alcohol, as well as rule out any other issues or conditions that might be involved. The doctor may ask questions about what you drink, how often you drink, and the quantity of alcohol that you consume. An assessment of your substance use will allow your doctor to work with you to identify your issue and come up with an individualized plan for treating your substance use.
Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment
When it comes to how to deal with alcohol withdrawal, there are various strategies to help. Medical detox from alcohol is often considered the first step in treatment and can help a person more comfortably and safely withdraw from alcohol while under the supervision of medical professionals. This process can take place in inpatient or outpatient settings depending on the needs of the individual and the expected severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal treatment may also include medications for AUD to assist in the process and help decrease the severity of symptoms.11
Professional assistance and treatment for alcohol withdrawal can help a person achieve an alcohol-free state and transition into ongoing treatment for alcohol addiction including therapy and holistic programming. This ongoing treatment can help address the behavioral, psychological, and social problems that are often associated with addiction and help place patients on the path to lasting sobriety.11 Professional assistance and treatment may be preferred over home remedies for alcohol withdrawal because they can help individuals go through withdrawal symptoms as comfortably and safely as possible.
Treatment is key to addressing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and one important component in treatment is alcohol withdrawal prevention. There are various strategies for how to prevent alcohol withdrawal, including monitoring, medications, knowledge of medical history, and treating symptoms before they become more severe.4,5 Obtaining treatment, even for mild symptoms, can help a patient comfortably and safely go through alcohol withdrawal.
If you or someone you care about is showing signs of alcohol addiction, get help. You don’t have to go through alcohol withdrawal alone. There are professionals available that know how to help alcohol withdrawal and ease symptoms. Our directory of rehab centers lets you easily search for a facility near you that offers detoxification when you filter by “detox services,” and location. If you need help, our admissions navigators are available 24/7 when you call .
Alcohol Withdrawal FAQs
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