What is alcohol withdrawal?
Alcohol, when abused or consumed heavily over time, can lead to our body’s physical dependence on it. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant because of its ability to increase the effects of GABA, the neurotransmitter responsible for easing anxiety and increasing feelings of calm and euphoria.
Over time our bodies get used to having a certain amount of alcohol present, for a couple of reasons. The more alcohol is consumed, the more the body is able to tolerate it. This makes it more and more difficult for the body to increase GABA, which requires more and more alcohol to keep the neurotransmitter at the body’s standard level. Even if one is not truly addicted to alcohol, it can be deceptively easy to increase how much they are drinking because of their constantly increasing tolerance.
Furthermore, the central nervous system adjusts to the frequent presence of alcohol and works to overcome slowed brain function by increasing excitement. When a heavy drinker suddenly stops drinking, their brain does not have enough time to adjust. Withdrawal symptoms set in when the brain and central nervous system are still operating as if a high amount of alcohol is in the body, particularly by overproducing glutamate, the neurotransmitter responsible for excitability and underproducing GABA.
Heavy drinking is defined as consuming eight or more alcoholic drinks per week for women, and 15 or more alcoholic drinks for men. A standard drink is considered to be 12 ounces of beer, eight ounces of malt liquor, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor. A woman who regularly drinks more than eight drinks or a man who regularly drinks more than 15 drinks in a week is at an increased risk for experiencing alcohol withdrawal if they suddenly stop drinking, rather than slowly tapering off or rehabilitating under the care of medical professionals.
What are the signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary per person, depending on how long they have been heavily drinking, how dependent their body is on alcohol and how rapidly they decrease their alcohol consumption.
Mild withdrawal symptoms can begin as soon as six hours after you have your last drink; for this reason, some individuals continue drinking in an attempt to avoid withdrawal symptoms. More serious withdrawal symptoms can begin within 12 and 48 hours from having your last drink.
Look out for these common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal:
- Tremors and shaking hands
- Increased heart rate
- Clammy skin
- High blood pressure
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty thinking clearly
- Pale skin
- Mood swings
One of the most serious forms of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens, characterized by extreme confusion as a result of alcohol withdrawal. Roughly 5% of individuals withdrawing from alcohol will experience delirium tremens, and it typically sets in 48-72 hours after the last drink. Individuals who experience delirium tremens are often heavy, long-term users of alcohol. More common alcohol withdrawal symptoms like those listed above can precede delirium tremens.
Symptoms of delirium tremens include:
- Vivid visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations and delusions
- Perceptual disturbance
- Cardiovascular collapse
- Profound confusion
- Rapid heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Hyperthermia, or abnormally and dangerously high body temperature
- Extreme sweating
- Sensory sensitivity to light, sound and touch
- Chest pain
- Involuntary muscle movements
- Stomach pain and gastrointestinal issues
- Extreme mood swings
- Panic attacks
Delirium tremens should be treated as a medical emergency. Delirium tremens can be fatal in 15 to 35 percent of cases where medical treatment is not immediately sought, whereas the fatality rate for individuals receiving treatment is approximately 5 percent.
What happens after alcohol withdrawal?
It is not uncommon to feel hesitant to quit drinking alcohol out of fear of the withdrawal process. Unfortunately, for those who heavily consume alcohol or have become addicted to the substance, going through alcohol withdrawal is a necessary and important step in recovery. Withdrawal symptoms can be treated and managed as part of a medical treatment plan, and you can continue to seek treatment through therapy as you strive towards sobriety. Alcohol withdrawal is uncomfortable and can be scary to go through alone; keep your sights set on the end goal of peace, clarity, recovery and sobriety.
Rehab After Work is here to guide you through alcohol withdrawal and rehabilitation with the ultimate goal of achieving sobriety. Get help today by calling 610-644-6464.