Alcohol withdrawal symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be extremely dangerous. Find out what they are and what you should do if you are experiencing them.

Withdrawal symptoms are almost always a feature of alcohol dependence. They are potentially dangerous and should be treated as a serious warning sign that you are drinking too much. Find out what these symptoms are, what causes them and what to do if you’re experiencing them.

What are alcohol withdrawal symptoms?

If you get any of the following after drinking heavily, it’s likely you’re experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms. 

Physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal

  • hand tremors (‘the shakes’)
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • visual hallucinations (seeing things that are not actually real)
  • seizures (fits) in the most serious cases 

Psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • restlessness
  • insomnia (difficulty sleeping) 

Withdrawal symptoms are dangerous and you should seek medical attention if you or someone you’re looking after is experiencing repeated vomiting, severe shaking or hallucinations / confusion. 

Withdrawal symptoms and alcohol dependency 

If you‘re experiencing withdrawal symptoms, it’s a sign that you are becoming physically dependent on alcohol. Alcohol dependence, sometimes known as ‘alcoholism’, is the most serious form of drinking problem and can lead to a whole range of serious health problems. People who are suffering from alcohol dependence may experience a strong, often uncontrollable, desire to drink and feel they’re unable to function without alcohol.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms several days a week, it’s very likely you are already dependent on alcohol. 

You must seek medical help - talk to your GP about how to reduce your drinking, and find out more about alcohol dependence and how other organisations can help

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Relieving symptoms of alcohol withdrawal

If you have regular withdrawal symptoms, you will almost certainly need medical supervision to help you reduce or stop your drinking, and prescription medication, to avoid the danger of having a fit, which could result in permanent injury or death. 

Although severe withdrawal symptoms can take up to a year to fully recover from, most people feel better within 3-7 days of stopping drinking. The first 48 hours are likely to be the worst. 

To relieve your symptoms once you’ve stopped drinking:

  • Keep yourself hydrated with plenty of non-alcoholic drinks (but avoid caffeine)
  • Try to eat regularly
  • Your GP may prescribe medication to help relieve your symptoms 

For some people, insomnia caused by stopping drinking can be challenging, resulting in the urge to start drinking again ‘to help get off to sleep’. If you experience this, remember that your sleep patterns will almost certainly start to return to normal once your brain recovers its normal functions.

Read our information on how to approach conversations about alcohol with someone else 

What causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms?

Withdrawal symptoms are caused by the way your brain reacts when you drink heavily. Alcohol affects the area of the brain responsible for what’s known as the ‘fight or flight’ function. This is the way in which our brains respond to danger, preparing us to either fight or run away. 

When you drink alcohol, the fight or flight response in your brain is suppressed, making you feel relaxed. And when you stop drinking, the alcohol gradually leaves your brain as your body processes it. But if you regularly drink excessively, the alcohol’s effect on your brain’s chemical balance can mean you go straight into fight or flight mode as the alcohol leaves your brain, even when there’s no danger present1

Withdrawal symptoms – both the psychological ones (e.g. anxiety) and the physical ones (e.g. the shakes) are all caused by your brain going into fight or flight mode. 

The more you drink, the more you’re likely to be affected by withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are most likely to be experienced by people drinking 8 or more units of alcohol, 5 or more nights a week. 

What will happen if you don’t reduce your drinking?

If you continue to drink excessively, regularly, despite experiencing withdrawal symptoms, you may find your symptoms get more and more severe. This is known as the kindling effect2

Doctors and scientists don’t yet fully understand how this process works. However, you must  take action to reduce the amount you drink if you’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms, to prevent them getting worse. 

Find out more about how to cut down your drinking:

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Last review: 19 September 2017 

Next review due: 19 September 2020

References

 

  1. Becker (2012);34(4):448-58: Effects of alcohol dependence and withdrawal on stress responsiveness and alcohol consumption. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23584111?dopt=Abstract [Accessed 19 September 2017]
  1. Becker (1998) Alcohol Withdrawal and Kindling, Alcohol Health and Research World, Vol. 22, No.1. Available at https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/25-34.pdf [Accessed 19 September 2017]