Alcohol Withdrawal: Symptoms and Treatment

Around the world, alcohol is used to socialize, celebrate, and relax. While it is a legal substance, alcohol has a strong impact on those who drink it and experts recommend restricting alcohol consumption to avoid unnecessary health and safety complications. Dietary guidelines suggest men limit their alcohol intake to 2 drinks per day (14 per week) and women drink no more than 1 drink per day (7 per week)1.  In the United States, a standard ‘drink’ equals about 12 oz. of beer, 8 oz. of malt liquor, 5 oz. of wine, or 1.5 oz. of distilled spirits/liquor1.  Consuming alcohol in larger than recommended quantities increases the risk of developing a physiological dependence, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and other biomedical conditions1.

Along with other risks, unhealthy alcohol consumption can result in the development of an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) or Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS). Genetic, psychological, social, and environmental factors all play a role in determining an individual’s risk level in developing an AUD or AWS1.  Consuming alcohol heavily for weeks, months, or years may result in physiological and psychological complications when alcohol use is discontinued. 

What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol Use Disorder has been estimated to affect around 18% of the population at some point in their lives.  Alcohol Dependence occurs when an individual repeatedly uses the substance and begins to develop a physical tolerance. Ultimately increasing amounts of alcohol are required to achieve the desired effect and the individual may begin to experience withdrawal symptoms when use is abruptly discontinued2.  Dependence can develop in individuals who are compliant with their prescription medications and in individuals illicitly using opioids.  Alcohol tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal are all the result of brain changes caused by prolonged alcohol abuse2

For those who have developed alcohol dependence, cutting back or stopping use all together can be very dangerous and challenging. Treatment is needed to help those struggling with an alcohol dependence to safely navigate withdrawal and recovery.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

Physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe and will vary based on amount used, duration of use, frequency of use, and other individual factors.  Alcohol withdrawal is a potentially life-threatening condition that requires medical intervention for effective and safe management2.  

The most common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following3:

  • Tremor
  • Craving
  • Insomnia
  • Vivid Dreams
  • Anxiety
  • Hypervigilance
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Delirium Tremens (DT’s) 

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal vary greatly between individuals and clinical studies have shown that anywhere from 13 % to 71% of individuals in withdrawal will develop significant symptoms3. There is currently no clear-cut way to determine the severity of symptoms any individual will develop3. The most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include hallucinations, seizures, and delirium tremens and can emerge one to three days after the decrease or discontinuation of alcohol consumption3

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

The timeline for alcohol withdrawal can vary from person to person and is impacted by a variety of factors. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may develop 6 to 24 hours after discontinuation or significant reduction of use2.  The duration of mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms typically lasts between 2 to 7 days from the last use of alcohol2.  It is recommended that mild to moderate symptoms are monitored and treated by a medical professional to ensure a safe detoxification.  Individuals experiencing more severe withdrawal symptoms will require medical interventions and detoxification can take up to 15 days3.

Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal at Greenbriar Treatment Center 

At Greenbriar Treatment Center, we offer an integrated alcohol abuse treatment program that begins with a medically-supervised detox and is followed by our inpatient treatment program.  Our alcohol treatment program includes the use of medications for withdrawal management and cravings, group and individual counseling, and other services to address the physical, mental, and emotional needs of those seeking treatment. 

Don’t wait to seek help. Alcohol withdrawal is best treated in a professional setting with addiction treatment specialists who can help you safely begin your recovery journey.  Reach out to Greenbriar Treatment Center today to learn more about our alcohol detox and treatment programs today.

**this page does not provide medical advice**

Resources

  1. Centers for Disease Control (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm 
  2. Mirijello, A., D’Angelo, C., Ferrulli, A., Vassallo, G., Antonelli, M., Caputo, F., Leggio, L., Gasbarrini, A., & Addolorato, G. (2015). Identification and management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Drugs, 75(4), 353–365. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40265-015-0358-1
  3. Saitz R. (1998). Introduction to alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol health and research world, 22(1), 5–12.

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