Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal and Why They Happen
What Exactly is Alcohol Withdrawal?
When your body becomes physically dependent on alcohol just to function normally, usually after excessive drinking, binge drinking, or drinking heavily on a regular basis, you will likely experience symptoms of withdrawal when you try to reduce your alcohol intake or stop alcohol consumption completely. The alcohol dependent brain has balanced itself to accommodate for the presence of alcohol, so when that presence is denied, the brain needs to chemically readjust itself. It will send out distressing mild to severe withdrawal symptoms to the rest of the body that can be uncomfortable, painful, cause anxiety, and can even become dangerous to your health and lead to death if untreated by medical professionals.
Alcohol abuse and alcoholism needs to be taken seriously for this reason. It is not safe when a heavy drinker suddenly stops drinking or quickly reduces the amount of alcohol without medical advice and supervision. The treatment of alcohol addiction is something that should almost always take place inside an inpatient detox facility to ensure dangerous effects of alcohol withdrawal do not occur, with the symptoms treatment provided by doctors and nurses, using medically reviewed processes.
Common Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
There are a number of withdrawal symptoms common to people who are in the first few days or weeks of recovering from alcohol addiction. Symptoms can range from mild symptoms to severe, depending on several factors including:
- How long you have been drinking
- Your level of dependence on alcohol
- How frequently you drink and the amount of alcohol you drink each time
- Any pre-existing physical and mental health conditions you have
- Your age
- Your history of drinking, addiction, drug use, and relapsing
- Intense nightmares
- poor decision making
- memory lapses
- Delusional thinking
- Lashing out in anger
- Violent behavior
- High heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Hand/body tremors
- Poor appetite
- Sweating uncontrollably
- Extremely strong cravings for alcohol
- Delirium tremens (life-threatening)
Entering a professional detox program will alleviate the majority of alcoholics withdrawal symptoms and keep you safe from dangerous issues like seizures, high blood pressure, and delirium tremens. You will also have an easy transition directly into an inpatient or outpatient rehab program once you are stable enough to leave detox, healing the underlying causes of your addiction, while providing you with relapse prevention techniques and support.
Rehab and aftercare programs are important, because addiction is not something that can be cured. It is a life-long, chronic brain condition that can take over again if you are not prepared. Alcohol addiction can also cause post-acute withdrawal syndrome (aka PAWS), in which signs and symptoms of withdrawal will return, go away, and come back repeatedly for months after detox is over, causing an increased risk of relapse. Symptoms of PAWS include:
- Memory issues
- Brain fog
- Low libido
- Aggressive behavior
- Mood swings
- Alcohol cravings
It can feel overwhelming and emotionally draining to experience PAWS, so continuing with professional support and peer groups, even after detox and rehab are over, is the best way to face these symptoms as they come. You will also learn to avoid triggers and relapsing, and PAWS will come less and less frequently until it goes away.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal occur due to changes in brain chemistry. Alcohol is a substance that depresses the central nervous system, which means that it disrupts certain chemical and electrical signals and messages being sent from the brain’s neurons to the rest of the body. The two main neurotransmitters that are affected by alcohol abuse are Gamma-aminobutyric Acid (aka GABA), and dopamine.
GABA is the neurotransmitter that is most affected by drinking. It is the chemical in the brain that produces endorphins, which help us to feel good, reduce pain, and act as a natural sedative. Once the brain becomes accustomed to having a consistent supply of alcohol, the amount of GABA production changes (along with other neurotransmitters) because it begins to rely on the alcohol for production. When the alcohol goes away, there are negative disruptions, with negative physical and psychological effects.
Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that regulates important brain functions including energy levels, enjoyment, cognition, motor coordination, motivation, attention, and mood. Drinking alcohol causes dopamine to be released into the brain, and over time the chemical processes that would stimulate natural dopamine releases stops occurring without alcohol in the brain. This lack of dopamine causes a disruption in the brain chemistry that causes several issues and unpleasant symptoms to occur.
How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?
Alcohol withdrawal does not last long in the grand scheme of things. It usually takes under a week for the worst of the symptoms to subside, with the average being two to eight days. The timeline depends on the person’s unique health issues, history of substance abuse, risk factors like weight and age, heavy drinking everyday vs binge drinking on the weekends, etc.
People who experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) will continue experiencing withdrawal symptoms for weeks or even months, while other people may continue to have sleep issues, anxiety, or other symptoms that stick around for weeks after detox is over. Alcoholism affects every person differently, so addiction treatments, including detox, should be customized to best suit each individual’s needs.
Dangers of Going Through Alcohol Withdrawal at Home
If you have been drinking heavily, binge drinking, believe you have a physical dependence on alcohol, or if you are using more than one substance on a regular basis, it is never recommended to quit on your own, at home.
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can feel extremely uncomfortable, cause severe distress, and can become physically dangerous or even deadly. Many people will relapse right away if they try to cut back or quit on their own, even if they have stopped drinking for their own best interest because it feels like a better option than going through that pain and distress.
As the brain’s chemistry and the nervous system have been altered by alcohol, when you remove it from your system it disrupts the brain, causing abnormal brain activity that can cause seizures, even if you have no history of seizures.
The most serious issue when it comes to withdrawal from alcohol is delirium tremens. This is a set of symptoms that happens because the brain chemistry is altered rapidly, with neurons over-firing, resulting in a dangerous syndrome that many people have died from. Symptoms of the DTs include:
- Severe confusion and low mental function
- Excessive sleepiness
- Chest pains and irregular heartbeat
- Tremors and sweating
- Irritability and aggression
- Extreme sensitivity to light, touch and sound
- High fever
- Brain damage
For these reasons, a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program for treating alcohol addiction is often prescribed, with 24-hour oversight by a medical professional, as medications can ease symptoms and cravings, helping people get through the worst of alcohol withdrawal without suffering through pain, anxiety, and medical emergencies needlessly.
Medications Used in Alcohol Detox
A medication -assisted treatment program for detoxing is the safest and most effective method for many patients who are trying to stop their physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. FDA-approved prescription medications can be provided to help with rest, pain, cravings, and other symptoms, while eliminating the risk of severe withdrawal issues. Common medications used for alcohol treatment include:
These are a class of sedative medications that helps reduce the risk of seizures along with other problematic withdrawal symptoms. FDA-approved benzodiazepines for alcohol treatment are Chlordiazepoxide (Librium), Clorazepate (Tranxene), Diazepam (Valium), and Oxazepam (Serax).
These medications also prevent seizures during acute alcohol withdrawal and are often used along with benzodiazepines. FDA-approved anticonvulsants include Carbamazepine (Tegretol), Gabapentin (Neurontin), Oxcarbazepine (Trileptal), and Valproic Acid (Depakene).
This is a medication given to those in recovery, as it inhibits an enzyme used to metabolize alcohol, causing serious unpleasant effects if you drink, including headaches, blurred vision, anxiety, and vomiting, creating a negative association with alcohol.
Naltrexone (Vivitrol, Revia)
This is a medication used for opioid recovery, but it is now also FDA-approved for treatment of alcohol, as it reduces the urge to drink. The way Naltrexone works is still not entirely understood, but it is effective in many patients.
This medication helps substance abusers restore and rebalance the balance of GABA and other neurotransmitters in the brain while in recovery. This medication does not prevent withdrawal, and will likely not work unless the patient is sober and has strong social support.
Other medications used in alcohol treatment include antipsychotics, beta blockers, Baclofen (a muscle relaxant), and centrally acting Alpha-2 agonists (for sweating, blood pressure, irritability and tremors).
Safe Alcohol Detox and Withdrawal at Muse
Detoxing from alcohol use disorders does not need to be scary or dangerous. At Muse treatment center, we will give you a customized and safe alcohol detox program, with medications and 24/7 doctor’s care provided from the moment you walk through our doors.
Our medical detox facility is comfortable, and you will have state-of-the-art treatments, including dual diagnosis care for co-occurring mental illness if needed, along with therapy, counseling, and all care provided by trauma-informed, caring, and nonjudgmental staff.
We use a whole-patient approach to treatment, with levels of care ranging from detox through inpatient rehab and on into outpatient programs including our partial hospitalization program, our intensive outpatient program, and aftercare including the integration of 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, allowing you to transition back to your life at your own pace.
Through clinical management of symptoms, along with psychological treatments and mental health care during alcohol detox and beyond, you can stop drinking alcohol safely with Muse. Contact our team today to find out more about how we can help you reach long-term sustained recovery from alcohol use disorder.