Once you are addicted to alcohol, quitting isn’t as easy as just putting the bottle down. Since the consequences of alcohol addiction are severe, there are many physical and psychological challenges to overcome first. One such challenge is withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal can be a major roadblock that prevents many people from getting sober and maintaining it.
Although withdrawal can be a major deterrent to recovery, there are ways to manage the discomfort and successfully achieve sobriety. Before you take the jump and decide to quit drinking, it can be helpful to know how long alcohol withdrawal lasts and what you can expect throughout the process. In this blog, we’ll discuss the major side effects of alcohol addiction, primary alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and ways to ease the discomfort of alcohol withdrawal.
Side Effects of Alcohol Use
A single glass of wine with dinner every once in a while isn’t a cause for concern, but the repeated abuse of alcohol over time can have extremely harmful side effects on your physical and psychological health. The side effects of alcohol abuse affect just about every organ and system in the body, sometimes even producing life-threatening diseases, complications or infections.1 Some of the most common side effects of alcohol use include:
- Brain damage – Chronic alcohol abuse can shrink the frontal lobes of the brain and hinder its ability to function correctly. Long-term exposure to alcohol can cause many cognitive problems, such as memory problems, blackouts, behavioral changes, hallucinations, and physical dependence. In some cases, unrepairable brain damage may even occur.
- Cancer – Chronic alcohol drinkers are also more likely to develop certain types of cancer, including throat, mouth, esophagus, and breast cancer.
- Organ damage – Excessive drinking damages organs like the heart, liver, and pancreas, which can eventually result in cardiovascular disease, alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, fatty liver, or chronic pancreatitis.
- Digestive problems – Heavy drinkers also often have digestive problems like bloating, gas, ulcers, and chronic diarrhea.
- Infertility and sexual dysfunction – Infertility and erectile dysfunction are more common among men and women who suffer from alcohol use disorder.
- Reduced coordination – The ability to balance or walk correctly can be greatly affected by chronic alcohol abuse, which can lead to more falls or accidental injuries.
- Malnutrition – Since alcohol prevents the body from properly absorbing vitamins and minerals from food, malnutrition and dehydration are common in chronic alcohol abusers. This can lead to more serious medical emergencies or life-threatening complications.
- Central nervous system damage – People who regularly abuse alcohol may also experience tingling, numbness, or pain in the hands and feet. This is a clear sign of damage to the central nervous system.
- Muscle cramps – Alcohol abuse can also cause frequent muscle cramps and weakness. Over time with continued alcohol abuse, muscle tissue may also die.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
When a heavy drinker suddenly stops drinking alcohol or drastically reduces their alcohol consumption, they may experience uncomfortable physical and emotional symptoms. These symptoms are known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome.2
Alcohol withdrawal is a result of the way alcohol interacts with the brain. When you drink an alcoholic beverage, the liver metabolizes it by breaking it down with an enzyme. This process helps rid your body of the alcohol via urine. However, the alcohol that is not metabolized and excreted through urine is absorbed by other parts of the body, such as the brain.
The general symptoms of drunkenness (relaxation, slurred speech, lack of coordination, etc.) are all side effects of alcohol reaching the brain. As you drink more and more alcohol over time, your central nervous system will adjust to having alcohol around and you will develop a tolerance. At this point, your body will require more alcohol to produce the same effects and feelings of relaxation and calmness.
Certain neurotransmitters in the brain are inhibited by alcohol, which leaves you feeling calm and relaxed after consuming excessive amounts of it. However, if you are physically dependent or addicted to alcohol and you suddenly stop drinking it, those neurotransmitters will no longer be suppressed by the alcohol, which leads to hyperactivity in the brain and symptoms like tremors, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, agitation, hallucinations, sweating, insomnia, and seizures.3
These symptoms are all signs of withdrawal, and they can vary in intensity from mild to severe. In some instances, they can even be life-threatening.
How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?
Many people who are trying to get sober wonder how long alcohol withdrawal lasts, as the experience is known to be an unpleasant one. In truth, the duration and intensity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms varies greatly from person to person. How long alcohol withdrawal lasts will vary depending on several factors, like:
- Your current physical health and metabolism
- If you have any co-occurring mental health disorders
- How much alcohol you regularly drink
- How long you’ve been abusing alcohol
- The severity of your alcohol addiction
- Your genetics and other biological factors (body weight, gender, age)
- If you abuse other drugs
If you consume large quantities of alcohol frequently, you are more likely to experience a longer-lasting and more severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
Although it is impossible to determine exactly how long your alcohol withdrawal symptoms will last and how severe they will be, here is a general alcohol withdrawal timeline that may help you determine what you can expect.
5 to 7 days after the last drink:
|Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline|
|8 hours after the last drink:||Abdominal pain, nausea, anxiety, and insomnia are common during this time.|
|1 to 3 days after the last drink:||At this point in the withdrawal process, confusion, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and increased body temperature may occur.|
|4+ days after the last drink:||Agitation, hallucinations, seizures, and fever may develop.|
|5 to 7 days after the last drink:||By this time, symptoms typically decrease and taper off, although some may persist for weeks if left untreated.|
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
If you’re wondering what alcohol withdrawal feels like, you’re not alone. Some of the most common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Cloudy thoughts
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid heart rate
- Alcohol cravings4
About five percent of people who experience alcohol withdrawal will suffer from delirium tremens (DTs), which is a more severe form of alcohol withdrawal.4 DTs usually occurs 48 to 72 hours after the last drink and symptoms can be life-threatening.
Common symptoms of delirium tremens typically include:
- Vivid hallucinations
- Extreme confusion
- Racing heart
- High blood pressure
- Excessive sweating5
People who are experiencing symptoms of delirium tremens should seek medical attention immediately.
How to Ease Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Attempting to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms on your own at home is generally not recommended because withdrawal can be unpredictable and dangerous. While some people with very mild alcohol dependence may be able to quit alcohol on their own safely, most people need medical supervision at a detox center to do so safely and effectively.
Many inpatient medical detox programs provide alcohol detox treatment for people who want to quit alcohol safely and comfortably. If you decide to enroll in an alcohol detox program, a medical and clinical treatment team will complete a full assessment to determine your physical and psychological treatment needs during detox. This will provide all the information the nurses, doctors, and therapists need to ensure that you remain comfortable and safe throughout your alcohol detox treatment.
During detox, the primary physician may use one or several types of medications to reduce any uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms you may be experiencing. Some common oral medications that are used to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
- Tegretol (carbamazepine)
- Neurontin (gabapentin)
- Trileptal (oxcarbazepine)
- Depakene (valproic acid)
- Tenormin (atenolol)
- Catapres (clonidine)6
By treating your physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms with medication, a medical detox program enables you to rest and focus on your recovery.
Although physical healing of the body is essential during detox, so is psychological healing. Many of the psychological effects of alcohol withdrawal such as anxiety and depression can be treated with individual and group therapy during detox. This not only reduces the severe feelings of anxiousness and depression, but it also prepares you for entry into a drug and alcohol rehab program, where behavioral therapy will be a central focus.
After detox, if your intention is to stay sober, you may also choose to continue your addiction treatment with one or more of the following continued care options:
- A residential drug and alcohol rehab program
- An intensive outpatient program
- A sober living program
- An addiction monitoring program
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings
Although alcohol withdrawal can be very uncomfortable and difficult, there are many ways to ease the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal so that you can successfully achieve long-term sobriety.
If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol addiction, there is hope for lasting sobriety and recovery. Call Briarwood Detox Center today to learn more about our personalized alcohol detox programs and continued care services.