Detoxing from alcohol can be difficult, and in some cases, life-threatening. If you’re planning on detoxing from alcohol, it’s critical to speak to a health care provider and get professional support if you’re dependent on it. Alcohol abuse isn’t the same as dependence, however. Below, we’ll talk more about alcohol withdrawal and detox and alcohol use disorder, and dependence.
What is Alcohol Dependence?
Alcohol abuse is a term that can be broadly used. Someone who abuses alcohol may also be a problem drinker. Alcohol abuse means that you keep drinking even though it causes you problems. For example, drinking even when it affects your relationships could indicate alcohol abuse.
Frequently dealing with debilitating hangovers but continuing to drink is also a sign of drug abuse.
Physical dependence on alcohol is a diagnosable condition, with symptoms including:
- Tolerance: A tolerance to alcohol or another substance indicates you need more significant amounts to get the previous effects. For example, if your goal with drinking is to relax, you might need three cocktails now instead of one. Increasing how much you drink long term to feel the same effects is developing a tolerance, and it’s a key symptom of alcohol dependence as well.
- Withdrawal: If you don’t drink for some time or reduce how much you drink, you may experience physical symptoms. Physical symptoms are withdrawal.
- Drinking to relieve symptoms: You may depend on alcohol if you drink to alleviate specific symptoms, like shaking hands or a hangover that occurs in the absence of alcohol.
- Drinking more than you intend: If you regularly binge drink (drink more significant amounts of alcohol than you plan or for more extended periods), it may indicate dependence. Unsuccessfully trying to cut down on alcohol can also be a sign of dependence.
If you have an alcohol use disorder that’s moderate to severe, you’re likely going to need help from an outside source or clinical management to stop drinking. Help can include supervised alcohol detoxification, medical treatment, counseling, or rehab. Participation in a self-help group like a 12-step program may also be helpful.
Alcohol dependence is not the same as addiction. An addiction to alcohol is a psychological, chronic brain disease. Addiction treatment and dependence do tend to occur together.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?
If you’re dependent on alcohol and try to cut back or stop drinking, you may experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS). AWS is a name for symptoms that occur, which can be physical and emotional. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be mild to severe, and in the most serious cases, life-threatening when you suddenly stop drinking.
The common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can occur from six hours after the last time you drink alcohol.
Most people who go through symptoms when detoxing from alcohol will experience at least a few of the following alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
- Psychological symptoms like anxiety
- Nausea and vomiting
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- Increased heart rate or heart palpitations
- Insomnia and sleep disturbances
- High blood pressure
During withdrawal from alcohol, the symptoms can worsen for two to three days and then get better. Mild symptoms may be longer-term, lasting for a few weeks. If symptoms last any longer, it’s possibly post-acute withdrawal syndrome or PAWS.
The most severe and life-threatening symptoms relate to delirium tremens or DTs. Signs of DTs include:
- Extreme confusion and agitation
- Fever or increased body temperature
- Alcohol withdrawal seizures
- Tactile hallucinations, such as the feeling of itching or burning that isn’t actually happening
- Auditory hallucinations, meaning hearing sounds that aren’t there
- Visual hallucinations, or seeing things that don’t exist
- Excessive sweating
- Fast breathing
- High blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
When you have severe forms of withdrawal, it’s an emergency requiring immediate medical attention.
Why Do People Experience Symptoms When Detoxing from Alcohol?
Many people won’t experience any symptoms when they stop drinking, but why do some?
- When you drink excessively, it both excites and irritates your nervous system.
- Then, over time with regular alcohol exposure, your body becomes dependent on the effects.
- Your central nervous system will struggle to return to normalcy if you stop drinking suddenly, which leads to the symptoms of AWS.
- Specifically, the effects of alcohol increase GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter that causes feelings of calm and euphoria.
- Alcohol also decreases levels of glutamate, a neurotransmitter creating excitement.
When you’re a heavy drinker, it’s harder for your body to increase GABA and decrease glutamate. You need more alcohol to get the same results. Your body learns to adjust itself to the presence of alcohol. When you stop drinking, you’re not affecting the neurotransmitters anymore, but your body continues to produce too little GABA and too much glutamate.
Heavy drinking is one of the risk factors for severe withdrawal symptoms.
- Heavy drinking is more than eight drinks a week if you’re a woman.
- For men, it’s more than 15 drinks a week.
- The more you drink regularly, the more your risk of complications will increase, and you are more likely to need inpatient care to go through the detox process.
Treating Alcohol Withdrawal
When detoxing from alcohol, you should speak to your health care provider before you even lower how much you drink. A qualified medical professional can guide you through the process of treatment of alcohol withdrawal. This is especially true if you have any underlying medical conditions or a history of withdrawal seizures.
If You Have Mild to Moderate Symptoms:
With mild to moderate symptoms of withdrawal, you may be able to do outpatient treatment or detox at home, but only after talking to your doctor.
- You might need someone to be with you during this time if your symptoms worsen to provide supportive care.
- You might also visit your doctor daily until your symptoms subside.
- Doctors may prescribe medications like benzodiazepines during this time.
There are other medicines you can take after acute withdrawal to reduce the chances you’ll drink again.
- For example, disulfiram is known under the brand name Antabuse.
- Antabuse can reduce alcohol cravings. If you drink while you’re on it, so it’s a deterrent.
- Topamax is another option that can reduce your alcohol consumption, as can Revia, a brand-name version of naltrexone.
If You have Moderate to Severe Symptoms:
For someone with moderate to severe symptoms from heavy alcohol use, it’s likely hospitalization or medical detox is likely needed.
- During acute alcohol withdrawal, treatment providers at treatment facilities can monitor vital signs, do blood tests, and provide intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration.
- During inpatient detox from alcohol, doctors can provide other treatments to treat symptoms as they’re needed. The duration of treatment will depend on individual factors like your medical history and underlying health conditions, and your alcohol use.
How Long Does Detoxing From Alcohol Last?
The timeline for detoxing from alcohol may look something like the following:
- Within six hours after your last alcohol consumption, minor symptoms may begin, such as an intense craving for alcohol.
- From 12 to 24 hours, more severe symptoms may begin. Some people, although the percentage is small, will go through hallucinations during this time. While frightening, hallucinations aren’t necessarily considered a severe complication.
- From 24 to 48 hours after you have your last drink, you may experience various other symptoms. If you have minor symptoms, they’ll usually peak within 24 hours and start to get better over four to five days.
- For more severe cases, symptoms might peak around 72 hours after the last drink.
If you want help and feel your drinking is out of control, we encourage you to contact our treatment center. We’re here simply to answer questions. The Right Time Recovery can provide you with more information about treatment for alcohol addiction and detoxing from alcohol, including in an inpatient setting with medical supervision.