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Alcohol Withdrawal

What is alcohol withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is physical symptoms and emotions you have if you drink heavily or frequently and suddenly stop drinking. You are most likely to have withdrawal problems 1 to 7 days after your last drink, or if you drink much less alcohol than you usually drink.

How does it occur?

If you abuse alcohol, you may have withdrawal if:

  • You decide to stop drinking.
  • You are in a place where you can't drink alcohol, such as at a hospital, treatment center, or jail.

What are the symptoms?

The effects of alcohol withdrawal vary greatly. Most people with mild to moderate alcohol dependence have one or more of these symptoms:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • shaking
  • sweating
  • restlessness
  • seizures
  • increased heart rate or blood pressure
  • trouble sleeping or concentrating
  • strong desire to drink to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal

Some people who are dependent on alcohol have a life-threatening condition called delirium tremens (DTs) when they stop drinking alcohol. This is a medical emergency. The symptoms may include:

  • confusion
  • hallucinations
  • agitation
  • seizures
  • memory problems
  • fever
  • very high heart rate and blood pressure.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will review your symptoms, examine you, and ask about your medical history and memory.

You may have one or more of these tests:

  • urine and blood tests to check for the level of alcohol and other drugs in your body
  • blood tests to find out how your liver and kidneys are working
  • X-rays to check for broken bones from a fall or other health problems.

How is it treated?

If you abuse or are dependent on alcohol, you must first admit that you have a problem. Some people know they have an alcohol problem but deny that they need help to stop drinking. When you can admit that you have problem and admit you need help, call your healthcare provider.

Many people who abuse or are dependent on alcohol have trouble admitting that they have a problem. Others may then have to confront those who abuse or are dependent on alcohol about the need for treatment.

Detoxification:
Detoxification is also known as "drying out." It means that you stop using alcohol completely. Detoxification can be done as an outpatient, or in a hospital or drug treatment facility. Which choice is best for you depends on how much and how long you have been drinking. It also depends on other medical problems that you may have.

Treatment for withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • anti-anxiety medicines
  • blood pressure medicine
  • anticonvulsants
  • vitamins
  • intravenous (IV) fluids.

Detoxification may take 3 to 4 days.

Long-Term Treatment:
After detoxification, treatment may include social, medical, and psychological therapies.

  • Social treatment involves family members and focuses on problems at home and at work.
  • To discourage you from drinking again, your healthcare provider may prescribe medicines. These medicines work best as one part of a full treatment program.
    • Disulfiram (Antabuse) will make you feel sick if you drink alcohol after you take the medicine. Knowing that you will have this reaction can discourage you from drinking.
    • Naltrexone (ReVia or Depade) or acamprosate (Campral) can help stop drinking by reducing the craving for alcohol.
  • Psychological therapy often involves:
    • Group therapy to understand alcohol dependence and why people drink.
    • Strategies to help people learn ways to limit the amount of alcohol they drink.
    • Cognitive behavior therapies are helpful for people trying to manage situations and triggers which may tempt them to abuse alcohol.

Self-help support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Rational Recovery can be helpful. AA looks at alcohol abuse and dependence as a disease. RR looks at alcohol abuse and dependence as a choice. At local chapter meetings you can meet others and get support to help you avoid alcohol. Meetings are open to anyone who has a drinking problem and wants to become and stay sober. Al-Anon meetings can help support families of people who abuse alcohol.

How long will the effects last?

The severe shakes and hallucinations of delirium tremens (DTs) may last 1 to 5 days. Alcohol has long-lasting effects. It can take weeks or months before you feel more clear-headed, less depressed, less anxious, and have more energy. DTs can be fatal if not treated.

How can I take care of myself?

If you abuse or are dependent on alcohol, the most important thing you can do is to admit the problem and ask for help. If you decide to stop drinking alcohol or are in a situation in which you cannot drink (such as in a hospital), ask for medical help. You may not need hospital treatment for withdrawal symptoms, but you should be where someone can get help for you if you need it.

While you are being treated for withdrawal:

  • Define a treatment plan with your healthcare providers and follow it
  • Follow your provider's advice for treatment of any other medical problems.
  • Get support. Talk with family and friends. Consider joining a support group in your area.
  • Learn to manage stress. Ask for help at home and work when the load is too great to handle. Find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, take walks. Try deep breathing exercises when you feel stressed.
  • Take care of your physical health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet. Limit caffeine. If you smoke, quit. Don’t use alcohol or drugs. Exercise according to your healthcare provider's instructions.
  • Check your medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all the medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and other supplements that you take.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your symptoms seem to be getting worse.

What can be done to help prevent alcohol withdrawal?

If you are physically dependent on alcohol, you will have withdrawal symptoms when you quit drinking. Seek treatment so that you can withdraw safely and with much less discomfort.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-05-16
Last reviewed: 2011-05-16
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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