Alcohol withdrawal side effects

What are the side effects of alcohol withdrawal? Why do they occur? When do you need to get immediate help for dangerous side effects? Answers to these questions here.

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What happens during alcohol withdrawal? We review the basic, common side effects of alcohol withdrawal here. Then, we invite your questions about alcohol withdrawal in the comments section at the end. In fact, we try to respond to all legitimate questions with a personal and prompt reply.

Withdrawal effects of alcohol

Q: What is alcohol withdrawal?

A: Alcohol withdrawal refers to a predictable set of symptoms that occur when a person who has been drinking too much alcohol every day suddenly stops drinking alcohol.

Alcohol withdrawal occurs most often in adults, but it may occur in teenagers or children who also have drinking problems. The more you drink every day, the more likely you are to develop alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking. However, you can also experience alcohol withdrawal after an episode of binge drinking. Why do alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur?

Alcohol withdrawal is a clinical, medical syndrome that affects people accustomed to regular alcohol intake who either decrease their alcohol consumption or stop drinking completely. The central nervous system (CNS) adjusts over time to the constant presence of alcohol in the body by trying to seek balance, or homeostasis. So, the CNS of a regular drinker naturally “speeds up”: to compensate for the CNS depressant effects of alcohol on both brain function and the communication among nerve cells. And when the alcohol level is suddenly lowered, the brain remains for some time in a hyperactive state. This hyperactive state manifests as withdrawal symptoms.

Effects of alcohol withdrawal

Signs of alcohol withdrawal usually occur within 8 hours after the last drink, but can occur days later. Symptoms usually peak within 24-72 hours after your last drink, but may persist for weeks. Common effects include:

  • anxiety or nervousness
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • jumpiness or shakiness
  • mood swings
  • nightmares
  • not thinking clearly

Physical effects may include:

  • clammy skin
  • enlarged (dilated) pupils
  • headache
  • insomnia (sleeping difficulty)
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • pallor
  • rapid heart rate
  • sweating
  • tremor of the hands or other body parts

Side effects of alcohol withdrawal

Most people who manifest mild withdrawal symptoms do not develop complications of alcohol withdrawal. However, some side effects of alcohol withdrawal can cause significant illness and death. For example, some people experience seizures, which may increase in severity with each episode of withdrawal. Another potential complication of withdrawal is delirium tremens, characterized by hallucinations, mental confusion, and disorientation. This severe form of alcohol withdrawal can cause:

  • agitation
  • fever
  • seeing or feeling things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • seizures
  • severe confusion

Furthermore, cognitive impairment and delirium may lead to a chronic memory disorder (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome). Psychiatric problems associated with withdrawal are also serious in nature. These include anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance. In addition, alterations in physiology, mood, and behavior may persist after acute withdrawal has subsided, motivating relapse to heavy drinking.

There is hope! Recent advances in neurobiology may support the development of improved medications to decrease the risk of complications and support long-term sobriety. People who experience more severe withdrawal receive pharmacotherapy (medications) to treat their symptoms and reduce their risk of seizures and DT’s. Because symptoms can grow intense quickly, all cases of alcohol withdrawal should be medically supervised. Hospitals and inpatient alcohol treatment programs are trained to identify and treat severe medical,surgical, or psychiatric conditions.

Alcohol withdrawal side effects questions

Alcohol withdrawal represents a period of significant clinical risk that requires attentive medical management. However, the detox period also provides an opportunity to begin treatments that may lead to extended sobriety. As such, it is important that you seek qualified, medical help during this critical and potentially dangerous time.

If you have been through alcohol withdrawal, please share your experience in the section below. Also, we invite your questions about alcohol withdrawal side effects. Feel free to ask your question in the comments section below and we will do our best to provide you with a personal, prompt response.

Reference Sources: NIAAA: Introduction to Alcohol Withdrawal
Medline Plus: Alcohol withdrawal
NIAAA: Vol. 22, No. 1, 1998 Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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