Learn / Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol Withdrawal

Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.
 March 22nd, 2020

Safety Note: Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening. Seek medical support and supervision to withdraw safely from alcohol.

Alcohol alters the chemicals in the body to produce its effects, such as relaxation and euphoria. Our bodies are designed to maintain balance, or homeostasis or equilibrium. These two facts will help you understand why alcohol withdrawal happens. 

What is alcohol withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal describes the set of symptoms a person experiences when they stop drinking alcohol after they have been drinking regularly, often heavily or for extensive periods of time. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are normal, but can be life-threatening, so it’s important to seek medical support. 

Over time of regular use, the brain and body adapts to alcohol being in the system and depends on it for maintaining balance (also known as homeostasis or equilibrium). When someone stops drinking, it takes time for the body to change back to normal levels. Withdrawal symptoms happen during this transition of regaining homeostasis.  

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms manifest in physical and psychological ways. Symptoms occur when, for example, the brain has become dependent on the release of dopamine from alcohol consumption and the person has not consumed alcohol in at least 6-8 hours.

Alcohol Withdrawal symptoms include, but are not limited to the following:

Physical symptomsPsychological symptoms
Fast heart rate
Loss of appetite
Nausea or vomiting
Delirium Tremens

Alcohol Withdrawal versus Hangover

Alcohol withdrawal and a hangover from drinking alcohol are separate things. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur when alcohol is not being consumed, while a hangover occurs when too much alcohol is consumed during one drinking period.

Hangover Symptoms

  • Decreased concentration
  • Decreased sleep
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased pulse
  • Irritability
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Weakness

Here is a quiz that can help distinguish if you might be having alcohol withdrawal symptoms verses a hangover from alcohol.

Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms that occur after the last drink are usually divided into 3 stages: Mild, Moderate, and Severe. All the stages are serious and should have supervision with a mental health professional. Not everyone will experience severe withdrawal symptoms, but grand mal seizures and delirium tremens can happen, particularly for those who drank for long periods of time and heavily.

Stage 1 – MildStage 2 – ModerateStage 3 – Severe
Occurs 6-8 hours after the last drinkOccurs 12-48 hours after the last drinkOccurs 48-72 hours after the last drink
Craving for alcohol
Dilated pupils
Loss of appetite
Minor hand tremors
Unclear thinking
Breathing difficulties
Increased blood pressure
Irregular heartbeat
Mental confusion
Excessive sweating
Rapid heartbeat

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