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Alcohol Withdrawal: 4 Facts You Should Know

By John McGuire
Medically Reviewed by Arpan Parikh, MD, MBA on August 02, 2021
Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous, even deadly. Here, we explore common alcohol withdrawal symptoms and other facts you should know.

There are several well-known alcohol withdrawal symptoms that occur when a person engaged in moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption stops drinking abruptly. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person depending on how much they have been drinking, and some of these symptoms can be quite dangerous. Here, we discuss four important facts you should know about alcohol withdrawal symptoms, the alcohol withdrawal timeline, and how to detox from alcohol safely.

1. Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly. 

In severe cases, it is possible to die as a result of alcohol withdrawal. UC San Diego Health notes that those who have consumed alcohol long-term and in large quantities can experience severe withdrawal symptoms, including seizures. These seizures have the potential to result in death if they are not immediately treated. It's therefore necessary for long-term, heavy drinkers to be under medical supervision during withdrawal. 

2. Alcohol withdrawal can lead to a range of symptoms. 

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal will depend on several factors, including the amount a person drinks, how long they have been drinking, and how their body has adjusted to the alcohol. Symptoms can be mild to severe, according to the University of Michigan Health. Typical alcohol withdrawal symptoms include the following:

Mild Symptoms

  • Shakiness
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

Some of the milder symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can go unrecognized. “Irritability and anxiety are common and often unappreciated withdrawal symptoms,” John Mendelson, M.D., the Chief Medical Officer at Ria Health, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Severe Symptoms

  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Trembling
  • Chest pain

3. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be tracked on a timeline. 

The brain needs time to detoxify after prolonged alcohol exposure. The time interval between the last drink and total detoxification creates a general timeline for symptom character and severity.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms start about 1-2 hours after the last drink,” says Mendelson. From this point, symptoms continue to build and typically peak between 24-72 hours after the last drink. After this, there is typically a decrease in symptom severity, but effects can sometimes linger for several weeks, according to the University of Florida Health.

Additionally, it's important to be aware of a potentially lethal complication known as delirium tremens.“The DTs—delirium tremens—start 48 to 96 hours after the last drink. Patients with DTs are confused, with unstable vital signs. Deaths can occur, even in well-treated patients,” says Mendelson.

4. Professional help can make alcohol detox safer and more successful. 

Alcohol withdrawal can quickly get out of control. For this reason, it’s important to consider consulting a health care professional if you or a loved one are detoxing from alcohol.

The two ways of safely handling alcohol withdrawal are inpatient care, for moderate-to-severe symptoms, or outpatient care, for mild-to-moderate symptoms, according to the University of Florida Health. Here is what to expect from each type of care:

Inpatient Treatment

  • Blood monitoring for levels of various chemicals
  • Vital sign monitoring
  • Intravenous fluid replacement
  • Sedating medications

Outpatient Treatment

  • Blood testing
  • Sedating medications
  • Counseling, which may include the presence of family members
  • Diagnosis and treatment of linked, co-existing conditions

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

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