Everything You Need to Know About Alcohol Withdrawal

hand saying no to alcohol
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be quite severe.

2 men in their early 30s enter an emergency room. One is suffering from heroin withdrawal and the other from alcohol withdrawal. One of the men is given some medication to reduce the painful effects of his symptoms and released within 2 hours of being seen by a doctor. The other is given medication and kept for observation to ensure that his symptoms do not progress into a life-threatening situation.

Which of these men is most likely to have been admitted to the hospital due to the higher risk of his circumstances? Hint: Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal.

With drug problems so prevalent in the press, it is sometimes easy to forget that alcohol use disorders and their consequences continue to represent one of the most pressing issues for tens of millions of Americans. With so many people struggling with alcoholism, we need to understand the implications of alcohol withdrawal.

Continue reading to learn everything you need to know about alcohol withdrawal.

The Symptoms are Severe

Every so often, you hear about people who quit something “cold turkey.” Instead of slowly tapering off, they just stop. Depending on the amount and frequency that you previously consumed, along with other individual factors, going cold turkey from alcohol can be dangerous. Even if you were drinking heavily for just a couple of weeks, you can experience alcohol withdrawal.

If you were drinking regularly, then suddenly stop, you may experience a number of symptoms, collectively referred to as Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS). Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can begin within hours of your last drink. They usually peak within 3-4 days but can continue for weeks. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:1

  • Cravings.
  • Anxiety or nervousness.
  • Depression.
  • Fatigue.
  • Irritability.
  • Shakiness.
  • Mood swings.

  • Nightmares.
  • Muddled thinking.
  • Clammy skin, sweating.
  • Headache.
  • Insomnia.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

A particularly serious stage of alcohol withdrawal is commonly known as “DTs” (delirium tremens). This is where you can experience severe confusion, usually about 3 days into withdrawal. You may also experience fever, agitation, hallucinations, and seizures.1

The more alcohol you consume, both in terms of amount and frequency, the greater the chance that you will experience withdrawal symptoms upon stopping.

AWS Can Go Undetected

Nearly 10% of the U.S. population drinks too much.2 In the worst-case scenario, alcohol withdrawal can result in cardiovascular collapse (circulatory failure) and lead to death.

While it’s difficult to determine how many people suffer from AWS and what symptoms they experience, some research has been conducted by using data on treatment received in the health care system. For example:

  • 15% to 20% of all primary care and hospitalized patients are dependent on alcohol.2
  • Approximately 50% of all trauma patients have had alcohol use disorders.2
  • Between 25% and 30% of people with alcohol withdrawal experience tremors.3

One of the biggest problems with AWS is that it can go undetected when people are admitted to hospitals for reasons that are unrelated to alcohol use. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are not always identified as such because they often mimic the symptoms and side effects of other conditions and treatments.

If these symptoms go unidentified, AWS can interfere with and complicate other medical interventions. Consequently, if you have an alcohol use disorder, you’ll often need to spend more time in an intensive care unit compared to patients who do not have a history of alcohol use.4

Treatment is Available

Even though alcohol withdrawal sounds painful and difficult to cope with, you shouldn’t let it deter you from getting treatment for your addiction. There are many rehab centers that will help you recover from alcoholism and detox safely.

Treatment for alcohol withdrawal usually includes:

  • Reducing withdrawal symptoms (in severe cases, patients may be sedated throughout the withdrawal period).
  • Preventing further complications.
  • Pursuing therapy and support for alcohol cessation.

Both inpatient and outpatient programs provide rehabilitation services for alcohol use withdrawal. Inpatient treatment is recommended if you have experienced moderate to severe AWS to ensure that your condition continues to be monitored and treated by medical personnel.

Sources

  1. National Institutes of Health (2016). Alcohol Withdrawal.
  2. Phillips, S., Haycock, C, and Boyle, D. (2006). Development of an Alcohol Withdrawal Protocol. Clinical Nurse Specialist, 20(4), 190-198.
  3. Hasin, D., Paykin, A., Maydan J., and Grant, B. (2000). Withdrawal and Tolerance: Prognostic Significance in DSM-IV Alcohol Dependence. Journal of Studies on Alcohol (61) 3, 431-438.
  4. Phillips, S., Haycock, C, and Boyle, D. (2006). Development of an Alcohol Withdrawal Protocol. Clinical Nurse Specialist, 20(4), 190-198.