There are three main stages of alcohol withdrawal:
The first stage of withdrawal is characterized by anxiety, insomnia, nausea and abdominal pain. These symptoms typically begin 8 hours after the last drink.
The second stage of withdrawal is characterized by confusion, high blood pressure, unusual heart rate, and increase in body temperature. These symptoms typically begin 24-72 hours after the last drink.
The third stage of withdrawal is characterized by agitation, hallucinations, fever, and seizures. These symptoms typically begin 72 or more hours after the last drink.
Symptoms typically decrease within 5-7 days
Most Americans over the age of 18 have at some point probably consumed alcohol. After a study, it was estimated by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) that approximately 87% of the adult population has consumed at least one alcoholic beverage during their lifetime. In the United States, alcohol is legal for people over the age of 21 to consume, whereas other addictive substances are not legal.
The Mayo Clinic published studies that show drinking in moderation is not harmful and can actually have some health benefits. These studies indicate that moderate drinking is considered to be one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for a man. Heavy drinking, or “binge drinking,” can indicate alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking is defined as drinking 4 or more drinks per day for a woman or 5 or more drinks per day for a man within a span of 3-4 hours. Alcohol abuse can also be defined by consuming more than 7 drinks a week for a woman, or more than 14 drinks for a man. Effects of alcohol abuse are in the following statistics:
- It is estimated that 16.6 million adults in America had AUD (alcohol use disorder), NIAAA in 2013.
- 1 out of every 10 deaths between 2006 and 2010, of working age adults, were caused by excessive alcohol consumption. This is based on a publication by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
- 88,000 people die every year from an alcohol related cause and alcohol is the third leading, preventable cause of death in America according to the NIAAA.
Alcohol elevates the levels of dopamine in a person’s brain which affects a person’s mood, increases self-confidence, and lowers inhibitions. As the alcohol effects wear off, the higher levels of dopamine dissipate along with the good feelings. The repetition of drinking alcohol alters the normal dopamine levels in the brain which results in the expectancy of higher dopamine levels and alcohol in the system over time. As a result, the brain will stop producing the levels of dopamine that were present without alcohol.
The body becomes more tolerant to the additional alcohol a person drinks, therefore making their brain more dependent upon the alcohol. When the effects of the alcohol wear off, a dependent person may suffer from withdrawal. These symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.
Withdrawal from alcohol effects:
- Mild: Mood swings, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, abdominal pain and/or vomiting, heart palpitations, depression, loss of appetite, tremors, and foggy brain
- Moderate: irritability, mental confusion, increased mood disturbances, irregular heart rate, increased blood pressure, body temperature and respiration, and sweating
- Severe: DTs (delirium tremens) which includes shaking, confusion and hallucinations. People may also experience fever, seizures and agitation.
Alcohol withdrawal and detox can be influences by multiple factors such as the amount and length of alcohol consumed each time, medical history, presence of co-occurring mental health disorders, childhood trauma, family history of alcohol abuse or addiction, and stress levels. Each individual’s case is different based on these factors as well as how dependent the person has become on alcohol. Abusing additional drugs along with alcohol may also influence alcohol detox and increase the danger of withdrawal side effects.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, DTs, or delirium tremens, is the most serious form of alcohol detox and withdrawal. It occurs in 3-5% of individuals experiencing severe alcohol withdrawal and can be fatal without proper treatment. DTs may not occur for a day or two after the alcohol has left the bloodstream and can occur without warning. This is the main reason why it is very important for individuals to have their vital signs closely monitored by a medical professional during detox.
Withdrawal from alcohol detox without medical supervision can be fatal. The central nervous system and brain experience a rebound after being suppressed by alcohol for an extended period of time. Because of this, it is never recommended to stop drinking “cold turkey.”
How alcohol detox centers manage symptoms
Once some of the physical symptoms of withdrawal have been controlled, there are many ways mental health professionals can help with the powerful emotional effects of withdrawal. Therapy and counseling, combined with specific medications can help with the anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts that can follow detox. It is also important to help prevent relapse. 12 step groups and individual therapy can offer important support beyond detoxification.
Alcohol detox centers use three medications that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help with alcohol related cravings during the detoxification and withdrawal process. Naltrexone, Disulfiram and Acamprosate are medications that manage withdrawal symptoms and discourage further drinking. Naltrexone blocks opioid receptors in the brain which reduces cravings and the rewards that come from alcohol. Disulfiram makes drinking undesirable by making people feel sick if they do drink. Acamprosate stabilizes the chemical balance of the brain and is believed to work on long term withdrawal symptoms. Topiramate is another medication that has shown promise in disrupting the way alcohol makes a person feel. This information comes from a report by Addiction Science and Clinical Practice.
Alcohol detox should never be attempted without the professional help of a detox center because symptoms and problems can appear and intensify very quickly. Even though the physical symptoms of withdrawal may seem to be under control, the continuation of craving, emotional symptoms, or even protracted withdrawal can continue without the proper medical treatment and emotional support.
During alcohol detox and withdrawal, Resolutions Behavioral Health will provide a supportive and comprehensive medical environment throughout all stages of detoxification to ensure a successful recovery. If you or a loved one need help, call one of our professional admissions team members today for a free and confidential assessment.