Alcohol Withdrawal: Symptoms, Medications & Treatment

Acute alcohol withdrawal occurs after someone with a physiological dependence on alcohol stops or significantly reduces their alcohol intake after prolonged heavy drinking. Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous and life-threatening, so professional support is often warranted.

This article will discuss alcohol withdrawal syndrome in more depth, as well as the symptoms, how it is treated, and the additional support treatment for alcohol addiction can provide.

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome refers to a group of symptoms that develop when someone abruptly stops or reduces their alcohol consumption after a period of heavy or prolonged use.1 Withdrawal symptoms are a physiological manifestation of alcohol dependence, which means that the body has adapted to the constant presence of alcohol and withdrawal symptoms result because the body cannot adjust fast enough.2

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

The course of alcohol withdrawal can be unpredictable and symptoms may vary significantly.3 The following factors increase the patient’s risk for complicated withdrawal and severe withdrawal symptoms:

  • Increased age of the patient (aged 65 or older)
  • The presence of co-occurring medical, surgical, or psychiatric conditions (especially traumatic brain injury)
  • Physiological dependence on benzodiazepines or barbiturates
  • Long duration of heavy and regular alcohol consumption in the days and weeks prior to withdrawal
  • Experiencing seizures or delirium during any past withdrawal episodes
  • Any previously treated or untreated withdrawal episodes the patient has had

Factors that may increase the risk of severe withdrawal include the following:

  • Concomitant use of other addictive substances
  • Having a positive blood alcohol concentration while experiencing signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
  • Signs or symtpoms of a co-occurring psychiatric disorders also occur at a moderate level of severity

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms develop within hours to days after decreasing or stopping alcohol consumption.4 Symptoms can include:4,5

  • Autonomic hyperactivity (e.g., sweating, pulse that is greater than 100 bpm).
  • Increased hand tremors.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Insomnia.
  • Psychomotor agitation.
  • Anxiety.
  • Short-term visual, tactile, or auditory hallucinations or illusions.
  • Generalized tonic-clonic seizures.

Generally, these symptoms cause significant distress or impairment.4

Those at risk of severe alcohol withdrawal will benefit from medical care and supervision to ensure they are stable and to prevent seizures and a worsening progression of symptoms. Medical detox can also help facilitate entry and a smooth transition into addiction treatment.3

Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, and some can be life-threatening.3

Seizures pose a significant risk. Around 90% of all alcohol withdrawal seizures happen within the first 48 hours of one’s last drink.3 Seizures associated with alcohol withdrawal are not only a threat on their own, but they can also indicate that the patient may progress into a more severe state of withdrawal.5

The most severe manifestation of  alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens (or “DTs” for short), a specific type of delirium typically associated with psychomotor agitation that also often points to a significant medical condition being present.4 DTs do not have a sudden onset, rather they progress from earlier withdrawal symptoms.3

Receiving appropriate medical supervision and medical care, such as in a alcohol detox program, can help prevent severe withdrawal symptoms such as seizures and DTs.3

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

The alcohol withdrawal process lasts approximately 4-5 days and only occurs after long periods of heavy drinking.4

Symptoms begin around 6 to 24 hours after the last drink, sometimes when the patient still has a high blood alcohol level.3  Withdrawal symptoms often peak around day 2. They lessen in severity around the 4th or 5th day of abstinence.4 Some symptoms, such as anxiety and insomnia, can persist for up to 3-6 months but are typically less intense.4

Medical Detox for Alcohol Withdrawal

Inpatient medical detox offers 24-hour supervision, observation, and support for individuals going through alcohol withdrawal.3 Physicians and nurses and other clinical support staff ensure that patients are medically stable and receive medications as needed.3 Patients completing medical detox often benefit from a smooth transition to treatment for alcohol use disorder, which can help them gain control over their compulsive alcohol use.3

Medications Used for Alcohol Withdrawal

Benzodiazepines are typically used to manage or prevent seizures and other severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Other detox medications may also be used to stabilize patients or for supportive care, such as anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, beta blockers, and alpha-adrenergic agonists. Patients who are dehydrated or malnourished may be given fluids or certain vitamins.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment in California

If you or a loved one is struggling with AUD and need alcohol withdrawal treatment, contact us right now. Our Laguna Treatment Center facility is an inpatient alcohol rehab in Orange County that specializes in medical detoxification services. In addition to detox, Laguna offers multiple levels of addiction treatment, including inpatient and residential care, as well as aftercare programming and 12-Step support.

Our California alcohol rehab admissions team is available 24/7 for a free, private phone consultation to answer any questions you may have about the treatment process. You can learn more about paying for rehab with health insurance as well as what rehab payment options you have if you are uninsured.

Get started on the road to recovery by having your insurance with us right now.

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