Understanding Alcohol Withdrawal

Getting help for alcohol use disorder can be intimidating, but understanding alcohol withdrawal can help reduce some anxiety. Learn more here.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal

When an individual drinks alcohol often enough or in large enough quantities, they begin to develop a tolerance. This happens when the body becomes accustomed to the amount of alcohol in the system. The user must either drink more or drink more often to feel the same effects. Tolerance is not only fundamental in building addictive behaviors but also the dependence on alcohol itself. 

Once the user has developed a tolerance, they will begin using alcohol more and more. Eventually, they reach a tipping point where their dependence has a much harder time stopping. 

At this point, when the user stops consuming alcohol, the body has become used to its powerful depressant effects. It will then begin to operate without the needed substance. This will bring on symptoms like headache, shaky hands, nausea & vomiting, anxiety, and sweating.

The primary cause behind the withdrawals is the return of the central nervous system to its normal state. Alcohol is a potent depressant. It slows down the central nervous system and also depresses other bodily systems. When the user stops drinking, and the remaining alcohol in the body is metabolized, the central nervous system speeds up again. This causes a majority of the symptoms experienced by users in detox.

How is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome Diagnosed

Diagnosing alcohol use disorder can be challenging and requires a trained, licensed clinician or therapist. Alcohol use disorder is a spectrum disorder, meaning there are varying levels of severity to every potential diagnosis. One person could have a very mild case. At the same time, someone else with just a few different answers is diagnosed with a relatively severe case. 

The points used to aggregate the score used for diagnosis are based on conditions or criteria to which the individual will need to answer either in the affirmative or the negative. The more conditions to which the individual answers in the affirmative, the higher their respective score, and the more comparably severe their diagnosis is considered.

How Long Do Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Last

The alcohol withdrawal timeline will look different for everyone, and it will also depend considerably on the addiction profile, medical history, and more of the individual going through it. Wondering how long alcohol withdrawal symptoms last is natural for those getting ready to commit. That said, some general guidelines will fit the recovery timeline for many people. Here is what the first few days will potentially look like for those considering entering into treatment. 

First 24 Hours

Within the first 24 hours after the last drink, individuals with alcohol use disorder will begin to feel the first onset of the alcohol withdrawal symptoms. For heavy drinkers or those who drink constantly, this period will often only be about 6-8 hours after the last drink. Symptoms common for this stage will include anxiety, sweating, tremors, nausea, vomiting, and headache.

24-48 Hours

After the first day, the withdrawals should be in full swing. Those who are entering recovery for more serious drinking problems may start to experience symptoms associated with delirium tremens, known as DTs. This can include hallucinations during the first day or two, followed by an elevated risk of seizure during the second and third days. Users with delirium tremens (DTs), are likely to feel, see, and hear things that are not there. 

Symptoms of delirium tremens can also be:

  • Confusion
  • Highly elevated heart rate
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Uncontrollable sweating

72 Hours

After about 3 days, most users will feel the physical withdrawal symptoms’ severity peak. This peak will generally only last a day before most of the physical withdrawal symptoms begin to fade away. In cases of severe alcohol addiction, the peak may not happen until 7 days into the withdrawal period, and there may also be alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

After the first three days

After the first three days, all but the most severe alcohol use disorders will have felt the physical withdrawal symptoms begin to recede, with even more feeling improvement within five days. There will be a small group of people who have either been struggling with heavy drinking or drinking over a long period that may find their physical symptoms last longer than five days. Some even as long as a few weeks in some cases.

What Factors Contribute to this Timeline

As we mentioned, many factors can and will affect the length and severity of the alcohol withdrawal process. One of the most significant factors that will change the alcohol withdrawal process is the addiction profile of the individual. This means things like how much they drank, what they drank, and how long the alcohol abuse went on before treatment was sought will sway the overall experience. 

Those who drank smaller amounts, less potent alcohol, or for shorter periods have the best chance of having short and relatively mild withdrawal symptoms. Individuals with heavier drinking or longer addictions may face a more challenging timeline for alcohol withdrawal, as it will likely be longer and more uncomfortable than others. 

Other factors that can come into play include the gender, age, and current medical condition of the recovering individual. Their overall physical and mental health, potential family history of alcoholism or drugs, and having gone through alcohol withdrawals in the past can all factor in.

How to Get Help for Alcoholism

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcoholism, there is no better time to reach out for help than now. The first step is to reach out to a local addiction resource guide and locate a treatment center nearby. Then make sure it has the treatment programs, options, and therapeutic methods that will suit your needs. 

You can find nearby inpatient, outpatient, and more. Once you find a treatment center, all that’s left is to contact them and speak with admissions to get started.