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Alcohol Withdrawal

Condition Basics

What is alcohol withdrawal?

If you drink alcohol regularly and then cut down on how much you drink or suddenly stop drinking, you may go through some physical and emotional problems. That's because the alcohol is clearing out of your system. This is called withdrawal. Clearing the alcohol from your body is called detoxification, or detox.

Most people may be able to cut down or stop drinking with only mild withdrawal.

It can help to rest, drink lots of fluids, and eat healthy foods while your body goes through detox.

But people who drink large amounts of alcohol should not try to detox at home unless they work closely with a doctor to manage it. A person can die of severe alcohol withdrawal.

Before you stop drinking, talk to your doctor about how you plan to stop. It's important to tell your doctor exactly how much you have been drinking. Your doctor will figure out whether you need to detox in a supervised medical center.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may start as soon as 4 to 12 hours after you stop drinking. Or they may not start until several days after the last drink.

Mild symptoms include:

  • Nausea.
  • Sweating.
  • Shakiness.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Intense worry.
  • Disturbed sleep.
  • Headache.

More severe symptoms include:

  • Vomiting or belly pain.
  • Being confused, upset, and irritable.
  • Changed sensations. You might feel things on your body that aren't really there. Or you may see or hear things that aren't there.
  • Trembling.
  • Being short of breath or having pain in your chest.
  • Having seizures.

Symptoms may peak within a few days. Mild symptoms can last for a few weeks. If your symptoms are severe, you'll need to see a doctor.

How is alcohol withdrawal treated?

You may get medicine to treat the symptoms, whether you are at home or in a medical center. Medicine that treats seizures can also help. Your doctor will explain what types of medicine might help you. You may start with a high dose of medicine and then take smaller amounts over several days. There are also medicines that can help you avoid alcohol while you recover.

What happens after withdrawal?

It can be hard to stop drinking. But after you clear the alcohol from your system, you can start the next, healthier part of your life.

After detox, you will focus on staying alcohol-free. You can learn skills that you can use to stay abstinent (or sober) as you recover. Finding new ways to deal with life's challenges, without drinking, takes time and effort. Recovery is a long-term process. It's not something you can achieve in a few weeks.

Most people get some type of therapy, such as group counseling. You also may need medicine to help you stay sober. Treatment doesn't focus on alcohol use alone. It may address other parts of your life, like your relationships, work, medical problems, and home life.

Treatment, support, patience, and commitment will help you make the changes you need to live a fuller life without alcohol. You may find, over time, that the process gets easier, life becomes more joyous, and your connections to others becomes more rewarding.

Steps you can take

Here are a few tips that can help you to not start drinking again.

  • Make sure there's no alcohol in the house. This includes drinks as well as liquid medicines, rubbing alcohol, and certain flavorings like vanilla extract.
  • Try not to hang out with people you used to drink with.
  • Don't go it alone. Spend time with people who support the changes you are making in your life. This includes asking for advice and help from people who have stopped drinking. You might also try mutual support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Eat snacks such as fruit, cheese and crackers, and pretzels. High-carbohydrate foods may help reduce the craving for alcohol.

Credits

Current as of: February 11, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Michael F. Bierer MD - Internal Medicine, Addiction Medicine

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