What is Alcohol Withdrawl Like?
Alcohol is extremely addictive because the body builds up a tolerance and dependence on it. This means over time, more is needed to produce the same effects. When someone goes without drinking for a short period, they will most likely experience alcohol withdrawal.
It’s true that alcohol abuse is dangerous because of the long-term effects on the body. In addition, withdrawal is one of the most life-threatening side effects associated with alcohol abuse. In fact, physicians state that alcohol is often the most dangerous substance for the body to withdraw from, especially if attempted without medical supervision.
Symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal range from mild to severe, and generally begin between 6 and 72 hours after the last drink.
Mild symptoms tend to begin within six to eight hours of discontinued alcohol use:
- Changes in behavior
- Mood swings
- Minor physical pains or disturbances
- Nausea and vomiting
Moderate symptoms usually begin 12 to 48 hours after the last drink:
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat or palpitations
Severe symptoms can be life-threatening and begin 48 to 72 hours after the last drink:
Medical detoxification is necessary for severe withdrawal symptoms. Anyone experiencing the first signs of alcohol withdrawal needs to seek medical help immediately in order to prevent the deadly effects.
For those individuals experiencing the most serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal: shaking, hallucinating, sweating, and delirium tremens (DTs), the death rate has been estimated as high as four percent or one in 25. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributed 831 deaths in 2016 to alcohol withdrawal.
How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?
Depending on the severity of the alcohol use disorder, alcohol withdrawal usually begins six to eight hours after the last drink and can last up to six days. Alcohol withdrawal should always be managed in a controlled medical setting where medications can be given to alleviate the physical withdrawal symptoms and stabilize the individual’s vitals such as heart rate and blood pressure.
Those who are at risk of alcohol withdrawal should be monitored in a medical setting in case they are in need of medical intervention. A slowly tapered dose of benzodiazepines is usually administered in order to prevent severe withdrawal effects such as seizures. Because benzodiazepines work on the same receptors in the brain as alcohol, they can help to alleviate the physical withdrawal symptoms.
Then the individual is weaned off of the benzodiazepine medication until they are no longer at risk of physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Individuals may still experience alcohol cravings and the desire to drink, however. Therefore, they should undergo long-term alcohol treatment where they can develop coping skills to manage their triggers and control their cravings.
Am I at Risk for Alcohol Withdrawal?
Those diagnosed with alcoholism are at risk for withdrawal. The diagnosis of alcoholism is based on an individual’s drinking history. There are several assessments health care professionals use to screen individuals for alcohol abuse including the 10-question Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), the abbreviated 3-question Audit-Consumption (Audit-C) and the CAGE questionnaire.
Answering “yes” to the following CAGE questions indicates a higher risk for alcohol withdrawal:
- Have you ever tried to stop drinking for a week or longer but only lasted a couple of days?
- Has your drinking ever caused you trouble at home?
- Has your drinking ever caused you trouble with your job?
- Have you ever felt the need to have a drink in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?
- Do you have “blackouts” (a period of time where you cannot recall any events after drinking)?
- Do you drink when you are stressed out, disappointed, or are in a fight with someone?
- Have you ever had withdrawal symptoms from alcohol? These can include a racing heart, nausea, vomiting, tremors, or seizures.
- Have you ever operated a motor vehicle while under the influence?
- Have you ever tried to hide your drinking habits from your friends or family?
- Has anyone close to you expressed concern about your drinking?
- Do you often find yourself in a hurry to have your first drink of the day?
- Do you ever feel disappointed or uncomfortable if alcohol is not available in a social setting?