Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal often starts after prolonged heavy drinking, and then you suddenly stop drinking. Or you cut down on your alcohol use. It is not one thing. It is a complex combination of signs and symptoms that often occur together and define a certain problem or condition.

  • Alcohol withdrawal is potentially life-threatening. It is a medical emergency.

  • It can start as early as a couple of hours after your last drink. Or it may take 1 to 3 days to develop.

  • It can last from days to a week or more.

  • It can worsen very quickly.

Signs and symptoms

There are several stages of alcohol withdrawal. But they overlap, as do their signs and symptoms. In the earlier stages, it most often includes:

  • Anxiety

  • Shakiness

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Sweating

  • Insomnia

  • Headaches

  • Fever

  • Mood swings, irritability, agitation, restlessness

Delirium tremens (DTs)

DTs are a severe and life-threatening complication. If DTs happen, they often start about 3 to 5 days after your last drink. They are potentially life threatening, so medical care should be sought. Symptoms of DTs include:

  • Sudden and severe mental or nervous system changes

  • Uncontrollable tremors

  • Severe disorientation, confusion, hallucinations

  • Heart racing, or irregular heartbeat

  • High blood pressure

  • Seizures

  • Possible coma and death

Home care

  • You'll need plenty of rest and fluids over the next several days. Eat regular meals and drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Don't drink any more alcohol. During this time, it is best that you're not alone. Stay with family or friends who can help and support you. You can also admit yourself to a residential detox program.

  • Don't drive until all symptoms are gone and you are feeling better. If you've had a seizure, don't drive until you've been examined by a healthcare provider.

  • If you were given sedative medicine to reduce your symptoms, don't take it more often than prescribed. Never take it with alcohol.

Follow-up care

Once you've gone through the withdrawal symptoms, you've fought half of the battle. To avoid the risk of going back to your past drinking pattern, it's vital that you get follow-up support and treatment.

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) offers support through a self-help fellowship. There are no dues or fees. Search the internet or go to the AA website at www.aa.org to find a local meeting place.

  • Al-Anon offers support to families of alcohol users. Go to the Al-Anon website at www.al-anon.org .

  • Residential alcohol detox programs are available. Search the internet for treatment centers in your area.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Seizure

  • Trouble breathing or slow, irregular breathing

  • Chest pain

  • Sudden weakness on a side of the body or sudden trouble speaking

  • Heavy bleeding or vomiting blood

  • Very drowsy or trouble awakening

  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

  • Rapid heart rate

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Severe shakiness

  • Hallucinations

  • Fever over 100.4º F (38.0º C)

  • Headache, confusion, extreme drowsiness, inability to awaken

  • Increasing upper abdominal pain

  • Repeated vomiting

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