Alcohol Withdrawals

alcohol withdrawals

It’s Friday night and you and your spouse go out for dinner to end a typical week. You have a glass of wine with dinner but your husband orders several drinks. Then he returns home and continues drinking, even after you’ve gone to bed. In the morning when you confront him about his drinking, he tells you that when doesn’t drink, he feels irritable and anxious. Is it possible that what he’s describing are alcohol withdrawals?

Arizona has a high number of alcohol-related deaths compared to its population. An average of 3,670 deaths occur each year in the state due to excessive alcohol use. While your husband certainly isn’t alone, you don’t want him to become a statistic. However, withdrawal symptoms are a clear indication of an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Let’s learn more about what alcohol withdrawal entails, the side effects that can occur and how the right alcohol addiction treatment services can help make this process more comfortable.

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) can cause a wide range of symptoms, such as anxiety, fatigue and irritability. These symptoms occur in heavy drinkers who suddenly stop or reduce their alcohol intake. In some cases, the symptoms of AWS can be fatal, causing life-threatening seizures and hallucinations.

The signs and symptoms of AWS typically develop within six hours to a few days from the last drink. Physical symptoms generally worsen for the next few days before tapering off, though mental symptoms can last much longer.

Why Do Withdrawal Symptoms Occur?

Alcohol acts on neurotransmitters like GABA, glutamate, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which are chemical messengers that send and receive signals between neurons. GABA, for instance, is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system (CNS). When alcohol binds to GABA, it creates depressant effects on the brain.

Meanwhile, alcohol suppresses glutamate, which is an excitatory neurotransmitter. This makes your CNS even more depressed. Your body produces more glutamate to try to counteract this. Long-term alcohol use causes the body to decrease the amount of GABA receptors in your brain to deal with the extra GABA it’s used to from alcohol. When alcohol isn’t in your system anymore, the brain doesn’t soak in as much GABA naturally as it did before alcohol, and it still produces the extra glutamate it started producing to counteract alcohol’s side effects. This lack of GABA and excess of glutamate puts the brain into a hyper-excited state, which causes withdrawal symptoms.

Dopamine also drops, which plays an essential role in motivation, pleasure and reward pathways. Without alcohol, dopamine increases beyond normal levels, causing symptoms of its own: elevated heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety. Serotonin contributes to feelings of happiness and overall well-being, so when this drops due to an absence of alcohol, depression and irritability increase.

Lastly, norepinephrine, known as the stress hormone, rises, triggering the fight-or-flight response. Symptoms can include increased heart rate and blood pressure, flushed skin and trembling.

symptoms of alcohol withdrawal

How Much Do I Have To Drink To Get Withdrawals?

Alcohol withdrawal is a telltale sign of alcohol use disorder. It can occur in anyone who drinks heavily and suddenly stops or reduces their intake. According to the NIAAA, heavy drinking in men is consuming five or more drinks on any day or 15 or more drinks in a week. For women, it’s consuming four or more drinks on any day or 8 or more drinks in a week.

How much you can drink before experiencing withdrawal symptoms depends on several factors such as:

  • Drinking level. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are more likely to occur in people who drink heavily. Find out if you’re drinking too much.
  • Length of time. If you’ve consumed alcohol for a long time, your body becomes used to having it around, which means you’re more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms.
  • Amount of alcohol. The type and amount of alcohol you drink also affects withdrawal symptoms. The more you drink, the more alcohol you have in your system, making withdrawal symptoms worse.
  • Other factors. There are other factors that can influence AWS, such as your age, gender, overall health and having a co-occurring condition.

Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms can begin showing up as soon as alcohol levels are lowered in the body. While each person is unique, alcohol withdrawal typically involves at least two of these symptoms: 

  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Confusion

To diagnose alcohol withdrawal, doctors will ask about your symptoms, review your medical history and perform a toxicology screen to detect how much alcohol is in your body.

Timeline Of Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal vary depending on the severity of your alcohol use disorder. But, you can expect a general timeline that looks similar to this:

6 hours after your last drink:

Mild symptoms can start as soon as six hours from your last drink. It’s often these symptoms that continue the cycle of alcohol use: 

  • Shaky hands
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

12-48 hours after your last drink:

This is when more serious symptoms develop, including hallucinations and seizures. This is why it’s important to detox under medical supervision. There are medications and therapies that can treat these symptoms and keep you safe.

48-72 hours after your last drink:

Delirium tremens can start in this timeframe, which involve vivid hallucinations and delusions. Only about 5 percent of people have them, but they can be fatal. It’s also not uncommon to experience other symptoms like: 

  • Confusion
  • Racing heart
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Heavy sweating

Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment, Coping and Prevention

When you stop drinking, your body has to get through the process, making alcohol withdrawals inevitable. However, you do not have to go through a painful and grueling experience just to start your recovery. Medications and therapies are available to help you manage your symptoms, especially anxiety, insomnia and seizures.

We do not recommend going through withdrawal on your own. Not only is this dangerous, but also it raises the risk for a return to use. When your symptoms are managed and you have the right support, you have a higher chance of completing detox and moving onto the next phase of recovery.

Here are some tips to help you manage withdrawal: 

  • Srround yourself with a support system to cheer you on and challenge negative thoughts
  • Take care of yourself by eating healthy foods, getting restful sleep and moving around each day
  • Manage your stress levels with healthy activities like meditating, listening to music or reading a book
  • Keep yourself distracted with short activities
  • Remove yourself from temptation and triggers

Medications Used to Treat Withdrawal Symptoms

When you start detox, you do not have to endure painful withdrawal symptoms with no relief. There are various medications approved by the FDA to treat AWS:

  • Benzodiazepines. These medications are used to treat panic attacks and anxiety. They can also be used to treat insomnia.
  • Anticonvulsants. Your team may also prescribe anticonvulsants to help manage acute symptoms like seizures.
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse). This drug inhibits an enzyme used to metabolize alcohol, causing unpleasant effects if you do drink.
  • Naltrexone. Naltrexone is also used to treat opioid use disorders. It decreases cravings and can help you stay abstinent.
  • Acamprosate. This drug restores balance in the central nervous system. Since it is not metabolized in the liver, it can be used by people with liver disease or hepatitis.

managing alcohol withdrawal safely

Get Help for Alcohol Withdrawals Today in Prescott, Arizona

The fear of alcohol withdrawal can send people right back into the habits of alcohol consumption. However, it’s important to know that there are ways to cope with AWS and get through the process safely and comfortably. Not only are there FDA-approved medications to help manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms, but also a number of therapies that support a healthy lifestyle. Recovery starts with a choice. Are you ready to take the next step?

Wolf Creek Recovery is located in peaceful and serene Prescott, AZ. We treat alcohol use disorders of all severities with our full continuum of care that includes detox, therapy and aftercare. Many of our team members are in recovery and can relate to what our clients are going through. Contact our intake specialists at 833-732-8202 and learn more about how we can help you build a life you love.