Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal usually begins after prolonged heavy drinking, and then you suddenly stop drinking, or cut down on your alcohol use. It is not one thing, but is a complex combination of signs and symptoms that generally occur to together and define a particular problem or condition.

  • Alcohol withdrawal is potentially life-threatening, and is a medical emergency.

  • It can start as early as a couple of hours after your last drink, or may take 1 to 3 days to develop.

  • It can last from days to a week or more.

  • It can worsen very quickly.

Signs and symptoms

There are several stages of alcohol withdrawal, although they overlap, as do their signs and symptoms. In the earlier stages, it most commonly includes:

  • Anxiety

  • Shakiness

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Sweating

  • Insomnia

  • Headaches

  • Fever

  • Mood swings, irritability, agitation, restlessness

Delirium tremens (DTs)

DTs are a severe and life-threatening complication. If it happens, it usually begins about 3 to 5 days after your last drink. It is potentially life threatening. DTs are characterized by:

  • Sudden and severe mental or nervous system changes

  • Uncontrollable tremors

  • Severe disorientation, confusion, hallucinations

  • Heart racing, or irregular heartbeat

  • High blood pressure

  • Seizures

  • Possible coma and death

Home care

  • You will need plenty of rest and fluids over the next several days. Eat regular meals and drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Do not drink any more alcohol. During this time, it is best that you stay with family or friends who can help and support you. You can also admit yourself to a residential detox program.

  • Do not drive until all symptoms are gone and you are feeling better. if you've had a seizure, don't drive until you have been examined by a doctor.

  • If you were given sedative medication to reduce your symptoms, do not take it more often than prescribed and never take it with alcohol.

Follow-up care

Once you have gone through the withdrawal symptoms, you have fought half of the battle. To avoid the risk of returning to your previous drinking pattern, it is essential that you get follow-up support and treatment.

  • Alcoholics Anonymous offers support through a self-help fellowship. There are no dues or fees. Search the internet or go to www.aa.org to find a local meeting place.

  • Al-Anon family groups offers support to families of alcohol users. Go to www.al-anon.org

  • National Council On Alcoholism And Drug Dependence at 800-622-2255 or www.ncadd.org

  • Residential alcohol detox programs are available. Search the internet for drug abuse and treatment centers in your area.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Seizure

  • Trouble breathing or slow, irregular breathing

  • Chest pain

  • Sudden weakness on one side of the body or sudden trouble speaking

  • Heavy bleeding or vomiting blood

  • Very drowsy or trouble awakening

  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

  • Rapid heart rate

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Severe shakiness

  • Hallucinations

  • Fever over 100.4º F (38.0º C)

  • Headache, confusion, extreme drowsiness, inability to awaken

  • Increasing upper abdominal pain

  • Repeated vomiting

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© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.