When you realize the majority of your life revolves around drinking, your first instinct may be to quit alcohol “cold turkey.” But if you’re a chronic drinker, your brain and body have become accustomed to alcohol. Suddenly eliminating that substance from your body can trigger withdrawal symptoms that can range from mild to severe to life-threatening.
What Happens During Alcohol Withdrawal
When you stop drinking after prolonged heavy alcohol use, your body goes through a series of changes during a process called alcohol withdrawal. This happens because your brain and body need time to adjust and relearn how to function without alcohol. During this adjustment period, you’ll likely experience some painful side effects.
“When you remove alcohol, the system becomes overactive or hyperactive, out of balance again,” chair of the Department of Community Health Services at the Boston School of Public Health, Dr. Richard Saitz says. “Before it adapts to not having alcohol around, there is a hyper-sympathetic state...which means rapid heart rate, higher temperature, and sweating, among other things.” Other mild but common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Pale skin
- Mood swings
Most mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal begin about 8 hours after your last drink and peak after 2 or 3 days. More severe withdrawal symptoms may not appear until 3 days after you stop drinking.
How Dangerous is Alcohol Withdrawal?
About 10 percent of people who are physically dependent on alcohol will develop more serious symptoms of withdrawal known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome, or AWS. People grappling with AWS may sweat and shake profusely and tend to experience an increased heart rate, tremors, a low-grade fever, high blood pressure, anxiety, and hallucinations. If left untreated, alcohol withdrawal syndrome can lead to other risks, including:
- Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures. If you’ve developed the habit of drinking alcohol every day, you may be at a higher risk for seizures after you quit drinking. More than 90 percent of seizures caused by alcohol withdrawal happen within 48 hours after you stop drinking, but they can occur 5 to 20 days after your last drink as well. Medications specifically designed to help prevent seizures may not help prevent alcohol withdrawal seizures, but medically assisted-detox can help treat these types of seizures.
- Delirium tremens. If left untreated, seizures and convulsions can develop into delirium tremens (DTs), the most severe stage of the alcohol withdrawal process. Symptoms of DTs can include disorientation, hallucinations, uncontrollable tremors, a racing heart, sudden changes in your nervous system, and coma. Once delirium tremens begins, the condition can cause cardiac issues, seizures, and other medical complications that can be fatal.
- Cardiac Complications. Low levels of electrolytes can trigger heart problems during the alcohol withdrawal process, including arrhythmias and potentially fatal heart attacks.
- Hypophosphatemia, or low levels of phosphate in the body, can lead to muscle weakness, trouble breathing, loss of appetite, and coma. If left untreated, hypophosphatemia can affect the way your heart functions, cause your muscle tissue to deteriorate and may destroy red blood cells.
- Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). Sometimes, prolonged side effects linger long after the initial symptoms of alcohol withdrawal subside. PAWS isn’t common but the condition can make post-rehab life challenging if it develops. Symptoms of post-acute withdrawal syndrome vary but can include trouble sleeping, irritability, dizziness, anxiety, delayed reflexes, memory problems, chronic nausea, anxiety, and intense cravings. Depending on the severity of alcohol abuse, PAWS can last anywhere from a few weeks to a year.
We’re not medical professionals. If you are considering any form of alcohol withdrawal, always consult your doctor first.
How to Quit Drinking Alcohol Safely
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can shift quickly and unexpectedly. You might feel completely fine one moment, have difficulty breathing a few hours later, and start seizing that evening. That’s why chronic drinkers and people struggling with alcohol addiction challenges need to take extra precautions to stay safe when they decide to stop drinking. When you’re ready to rid your body of alcohol, you can:
- Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline. Alcohol withdrawal can be risky. So when you’re ready to quit consuming the substance altogether, you need to talk to a trained medical professional who specializes in alcohol and drug abuse treatment. If you don’t know where to start looking for an addiction treatment specialist, you can call the SAMHSA national helpline at 1-800-662-4357. The helpline can provide you with resources, support, and information on treatment facilities in your area.
- Visit an alcohol rehab counselor. These trained professionals can be very supportive as you experience the highs and lows of alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol rehab counselors can also help you pinpoint any underlying factors that might have encouraged, influenced, or provoked an alcohol addiction in the first place and help you walk through those circumstances. You can find an alcohol rehab counselor on your own or work with one as you undergo professional addiction treatment.
- Participate in a professional, medically-supervised detox program. Quitting alcohol cold turkey can affect your long-term health and may be fatal. Participating in a medical detox program will help you safely stop drinking. Clinical personnel may slowly taper you off alcohol to prevent a sudden shock to your body and central nervous system. They can also administer medication to help ease severe symptoms of withdrawal. Most importantly, detox specialists will monitor your vitals and mental health around the clock, helping prevent and treat delirium tremens, seizures, coma, and other severe withdrawal symptoms.
- Enroll in an addiction treatment program. After you detox your body, you need to enroll in an addiction treatment program to help maintain your sobriety, overcome cravings, and avoid relapse. Outpatient programs allow you to work and go to school during the day and attend treatment in the evenings. Inpatient programs offer safe, supervised residential treatment and provide 24-hour care.
- Maintain your health. Alcohol abuse can be detrimental to your body. Vitamin deficiencies and poor nutrition can make the withdrawal process even more difficult. Staying hydrated, taking a daily multivitamin, and maintaining a balanced diet can help prevent most mild withdrawal symptoms.
Safe, Sustainable, & Holistic Treatment For Alcohol Addiction
Here at Genesis Recovery, we believe in the concept of beginning again. We also know that quitting alcohol cold turkey can be extremely risky. Don’t worry, there’s hope. We can help you overcome and recover from alcohol addiction challenges safely.
Our alcohol addiction treatment program combines 4 distinct elements that will help you achieve long-lasting sobriety: expert clinical treatment, the 12-step program, a strong and supportive recovery community, and uplifting and faith-based activities to nourish your soul and spirit.
You can begin again with long-term recovery. Let us help you get there. Call us today at 619-797-7319 if you or a loved one are grappling with alcohol addiction challenges.