What is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol is a “depressant” drug. That means it slows down the parts of your brain that affect your thinking and behaviour, as well as your breathing and heart rate. When alcohol is consumed regularly, it is possible to develop a physical dependence.

Physical dependence involves tolerance to alcohol’s effects, and withdrawal symptoms when drinking is stopped. As people develop tolerance, they need more and more alcohol to produce the desired effect. People who are physically dependent on alcohol can develop withdrawal symptoms, such as sleeplessness, tremors, nausea and seizures, within a few hours after their last drink.

women silhouette at dawnThese symptoms can last from two to seven days and range from mild to severe, depending of the amount of alcohol consumed and the period of time over which it was used. Some people experience delirium tremens, or “the DTs,” five to six days after drinking stops. This dangerous syndrome consists of frightening hallucinations, extreme confusion, fever and racing heart.

Although it is not common, alcohol and another similar depressant, known as benzodiazepines are the only substances which do pose a direct risk of death from withdrawal.

Important considerations:

  • Withdrawal severity varies widely. Some people who drink very heavily experience few or no symptoms of withdrawal, whereas others experience severe symptoms.
  • Withdrawal can begin as early as six to twelve hours after the last drink.
  • Symptoms often peak at two to three days, although they can last up to seven days.
  • Past withdrawal predicts future episodes. Individuals with a history of delirium tremens and withdrawal seizures are at high risk of recurrence if they return to drinking and stop again.
  • Alcohol withdrawal requiring treatment is rare in people consuming fewer than six drinks per day, except in older adults, who may develop significant withdrawal symptoms even if they were consuming only several drinks per day.
  • Withdrawal can often be confused with symptoms of anxiety. Withdrawal is more likely when drinking begins at a predictable time in the morning or afternoon, symptoms include sweating or tremors and symptoms are quickly relieved by alcohol.

If you or someone you know is drinking daily and/or heavily, please consult a trusted healthcare professional, with addictions expertise, before attempting to stop in a cold turkey fashion.

Adapted from Portico Network article