Medically Reviewed by Dr. Francine Mends, MD on August 3, 2020
Did you know withdrawal affects every single person who has alcohol addiction? It’s one of the hallmark signs of the disorder. And it’s one of the reasons that alcohol relapse is so common.
Alcohol withdrawal can be both dangerous and uncomfortable. It comes with side effects that include headaches, anxiety, fatigue and nausea. For some people, withdrawal from alcohol can cause seizures, hallucinations, and high fevers.
It can feel impossible to tolerate withdrawal until it’s over. For some people, it could last just a few days. But others withdraw from alcohol for weeks. And no matter how long or short the withdrawal, it can lead to relapse.
You’re more likely to relapse on alcohol when you’re in withdrawal. You can increase your odds of a healthy recovery by attending detox. Medical detox programs keep you supported and comfortable while you’re going through withdrawal.
Here’s what you need to know about alcohol withdrawal and detox:
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) happens when you stop or reduce heavy drinking. It’s a sign of addiction or dependence.
When you drink alcohol over a long period of time, it affects your body’s GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) production. GABA is a chemical that controls brain-body signaling. High GABA levels slow down the nervous system.
Long-term alcohol use gets your body used to high levels of GABA. When you stop using alcohol suddenly, your GABA levels drop, causing the symptoms of AWS.
Is Alcohol Withdrawal Dangerous?
Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous and even life-threatening. You should never try to stop heavy alcohol use without help.
Severe AWS symptoms can include seizures, heart problems, and a high fever. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should get medical help right away.
Some people experience a dangerous complication called delirium tremens (DTs). This condition causes death in 1 in 20 people who develop it. The signs include:
- Heart palpitations
You’re more likely to develop DTs if you’re a heavy long-term alcohol user. The signs of DTs appear within 3 days of your last alcohol use.
Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you have severe withdrawal symptoms. Without medical care, these symptoms can lead to permanent damage and death.
You can make alcohol withdrawal less dangerous by getting help. An alcohol detox program can help you recover safely. You’ll receive monitoring and care for your symptoms to prevent them from getting out of hand. Don’t try to stop drinking alcohol cold turkey if you’re a long-term user.
What Are the Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal?
You’ll start experiencing AWS symptoms between a few hours and a few days after your last drink.
Alcohol cravings are the most well-known symptom of withdrawal. These cravings can be severe enough to lead to relapse.
The other signs and symptoms include:
- High blood pressure
- High heart rate
- Night terrors
- Tremors in your hands
You may experience some or all of these signs. If you have a long-term history of heavy alcohol use, then you might have more signs. The severity of the signs depends on your alcohol use history, too.
If you have severe AWS, then your withdrawal might include these signs:
- Extreme agitation
- Extreme confusion
- Full-body tremors
Call 911 if you experience severe AWS symptoms. These symptoms can be a sign of delirium tremens, which is life-threatening. Up to 5% of people who withdraw from alcohol develop AUD.
How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?
Most people experience AWS for 4 or 5 days after their last drink. However, it can vary depending on factors that include:
- Your age
- Your health history
- Your mental health history
- Your drinking history
- Your history of other drug use
If you have a long-term history of heavy alcohol use, you could have a longer withdrawal. The same is true if you’re older or have health conditions.
The acute phase of withdrawal starts within 6 to 12 hours for most people. It lasts around 24 to 48 hours and usually includes minor withdrawal symptoms.
Between 2 and 3 days after your last drink, you’ll start to feel moderate to severe symptoms. Most people feel these symptoms until 5 days after their last drink.
Some people who stop drinking alcohol experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). PAWS is a long-term withdrawal syndrome that can last a month or longer. The symptoms of PAWS are usually moderate, but they last so long that they can be distressing.
You’re at higher risk for long-lasting withdrawal if you’ve been drinking heavily for a long time.
What is Alcohol Detox?
Alcohol detox programs help you stop drinking under medical care. The effects of AWS can be hard to withstand alone, especially if you develop PAWS.
Over 90% of people with addiction experience a relapse. Withdrawal is the most common time to experience a relapse. You can reduce your risk of relapsing significantly by attending an alcohol detox program.
These programs give you support by monitoring your symptoms around the clock. Your care team will provide nutrition, hydration, and medication to keep you comfortable.
What Happens in Alcohol Detox?
In detox, the main goal is to keep you comfortable long enough for the alcohol to leave your system. Your care team will review your medical history and create a detox plan right for you.
Your detox plan may include:
- Medications: Your care team may use sedative medications like Ativan or Valium to help reduce withdrawal symptoms. If you have other problems from withdrawal, those will be treated too. For instance, you may receive anticonvulsants to control seizures during withdrawal.
- Intravenous (IV) fluids: Alcohol dehydrates your body and most people don’t replenish those fluids when they’re struggling with alcohol abuse. Withdrawal can dehydrate you even further. Your care team will use IV fluids to help reverse and prevent dehydration.
- Nutritional support: It’s common to develop nutritional problems when you’ve been drinking long-term. Alcohol depletes your body’s B-complex vitamins, as well as electrolytes and omega-3 fatty acids. Your care team will monitor and reverse these problems during withdrawal. That may include a balanced nutrition plan and vitamin supplements.
Your detox plan will be unique to you. While there’s a set protocol for handling alcohol detox, your care team will use your history to make the best choices for your care. If it’s part of your plan, you’ll prepare for inpatient treatment while you’re in detox as well.
How Long Does Alcohol Detox Last?
Most alcohol detox programs last 4 to 7 days. It takes most people 3 to 5 days to withdraw from alcohol, but a few people may need a longer program.
If you’re at risk for PAWS, talk to your care team about choosing a longer detox program. They can help you determine the best program length for your needs. An extended detox program could last 10 days or longer.
What Are the Signs You Need Alcohol Detox?
You need detox if you’re living with alcohol addiction. It doesn’t matter how mild or severe your addiction seems. If your life is affected by alcohol, then you can benefit from a detox program.
The signs that you need alcohol detox include:
- A history of heavy drinking for at least a month
- A need to start your day with alcohol or drink throughout the day
- Trouble stopping alcohol use on your own
- Severe withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop, including fever, tremors, seizures, or agitation
Anyone who wants to quit drinking should go to a medical detox program. Alcohol withdrawal has a reputation as one of the hardest withdrawals to get through alone. Participating in detox can lessen your risk of relapse and keep you comfortable enough to start treatment after.
Find a Safe Detox for Alcohol Addiction
Search our treatment center directory to find an alcohol detox program near you. Accredited treatment centers can help you through the most difficult parts of recovery so you can start your life anew. Make a phone call today and start taking control of your life!
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