Alcohol Withdrawal Side Effects

Written by Chloe Nicosia

Alcohol Withdrawal Side Effects, Detox Timeline, and How Professional Help Can Assist

Alcohol is considered by addiction specialists to be the most dangerous drug in the world, according to a Lancet study on the affects that various drugs have on the individual, others, and society as a whole. One of the aspects of alcoholism that makes it so dangerous are the alcohol withdrawal side effects; unlike some drugs that tend to be safe to recover from, alcohol can be life-threatening. In this article, we will take a closer look at alcohol withdrawal symptoms, how long they last for, and what should be done to get through withdrawal safely.

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Why Is Alcohol So Dangerous?

One of the reasons why alcohol has such a widespread effect in the United States is due to its availability and social acceptance. In 2015, 86.4 percent of adults had drunk alcohol at least once in their life. Of course, just drinking alcohol won’t make you an alcoholic; there are factors that increase one’s risk of becoming an addict, which are as follows:

  • Environmental factors such a person’s economic status, peer pressure, and exposure to alcohol.
  • Biological factors such as alcoholism running in the family, gender, and co-occurring mental disorder.
  • Developmental factors such as the biological and environmental factors intersecting at critical developmental stages in the person’s life.

Alcohol Withdrawal Side Effects: Causes, Symptoms, and Timeline

The following section explores the causes of alcohol withdrawal side effects, what the withdrawal symptoms are, and how long they usually take to run their course.

Causes

Alcohol withdrawal side effects occur in any individual who has repeatedly drank at risky levels for an extended period. To better understand what this means, we will look at what is considered a standard drink in the United States and what are dangerous levels of drinking.

A standard drink, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), is:

  • One and a half ounces of distilled spirits
  • Five ounces of wine
  • Twelve ounces of beer

According to the NIAAA, risky drinking is classified as:

  • Binge drinking: Five drinks for men and four drinks for women in two hours
  • Heavy alcohol use: binge drinking on more than four days in a month

People who remain under these levels, have a 2 percent chance to develop alcohol use disorder (alcoholism).

When a person partakes in risky drinking for an extended period, then they will likely develop alcohol dependence. Dependence refers to bodily changes that causes a person to “need” alcohol in order to function. An addiction is the behavioral changes that occur that causes a person to abuse a substance, even if the substance isn’t physically addictive. Dependence and addiction often occur together, and addiction usually forms due to the factors that increase the risk, which was previously discussed.

Alcohol Withdrawal Side Effects

One of the side effects of dependence to alcohol are withdrawal symptoms; as the body adjusts to the high levels of alcohol, there is an increase of GABA receptors which can cause your system to become imbalanced when alcohol is no longer taken. Withdrawal symptoms are essentially the symptoms that occur while the body returns to its natural function.

The most frequent alcohol detox symptoms are as follows:

  • Mild symptoms: The first expected symptoms are milder, and include abdominal pain, insomnia, anxiety, mood swings, heart palpitations, depression, fatigue, nausea, insomnia, and a loss of appetite.
  • Moderate symptoms: Most people experience moderate symptoms, which include an irregular heartbeat, mood disturbances, high blood pressure, high body temperature, strain respiration, mental confusion, irritability, and profuse sweating.

Delirium Tremens (DTs)

The most severe withdrawal symptoms, which occur in roughly 3 to 5 percent of withdrawal cases, are delirium tremens. They occur after the moderate symptoms. It is the most dangerous time during detox and can they can be fatal. The symptoms of DTs include the following:

  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Agitation
  • Severe confusion
  • Intense hallucination

Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

The alcohol withdrawal timeline starts when a person stops drinking. The early symptoms in the alcohol withdrawal timeline tend to start after roughly 8 hours. The second stage of withdrawal from alcohol is where the symptoms begin to peak in intensity, and it tends to start as early as 24 hours after the last drink, but can take longer in some cases to begin. The entire process usually carries on for roughly 5 to 7 days.

If the person were to experience DTs, then they will start to see symptoms after the third day of detox. However, it’s not possible to tell if a person with a severe addiction will have DTs, and they can set in very rapidly.

If the detox is done without professional help and medications, then there is a possibility that the psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety will last for weeks. This is known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome, and treatment is usually required to help normalize the person’s bodily function.

Medical Detox for Alcohol

Alcohol detox symptoms can be dangerous; in rare cases, people die from the symptoms. In general, the symptoms can be hellish to get through, and as such, it is always advised that one seek out a medical detox for alcohol.

What is a Medical Detox?

At a rehab center, the best way to get through an alcohol detox is through a medical detox program. This is essentially a program that incorporates FDA-approved medications to reduce and manage symptoms along with around-the-clock medical care to monitor the patient’s health and ensure that they are safe through the process. It is highly advised for any person with a severe addiction to alcohol to go through a medical detox for alcohol.

The FDA-Approved Medications Used

The FDA has approved several medications and variants of those medications for use in a medical detox from alcohol. They include the following:

  • Acamprosate – This medication is used in people with a severe dependence. It is aimed at treating psychological symptoms. When post-acute withdrawal syndrome occurs, acamprosate can be used to lower the insomnia, anxiety, and depression that remains.
  • Naltrexone – The receptors that are involved with the rewarding effects of alcohol abuse can be blocked through the use of naltrexone. This essentially helps to reduce cravings and it is highly effective in severe addictions.
  • Disulfiram – During detox, it’s often to most difficult time for the addict to not drink due to the cravings and intense withdrawal symptoms that drive them to drink more. This is where disulfiram can be particularly useful; it works by altering the way that the body breaks down alcohol. If the person attempts to drink alcohol while on the medication, they will be met by unpleasant symptoms such as nausea. It blocks the standard alcohol effects and essentially makes the person have an allergic reaction to alcohol.

Sources:

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)61462-6/fulltext

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction