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It’s easy to assume that alcohol withdrawal would be much less severe than the withdrawal associated with other, more potent substances, but unfortunately, this isn’t true. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be extremely dangerous, and even deadly. And with alcohol abuse being so widespread in the United States, knowing how to recover safely from a drinking problem can make the difference between life and death.

Naturally, since so much is misunderstood about alcoholism in general and withdrawal in particular, there are a lot of questions associated with the topic.

For instance, what actually is alcohol withdrawal? What causes it? What kind of effects does it have on the person who is going through it? How long does alcohol withdrawal last and why is it so dangerous? What helps alcohol withdrawal and perhaps most importantly… can it be avoided?

In this post, we’re going to answer all of these questions and more to help you or someone you know learn how to avoid alcohol withdrawal.

What Is Withdrawal?

While many might assume that alcohol withdrawal symptoms would be relatively minor and easy to deal with, this actually isn’t true. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as the withdrawal from alcohol can be much more severe than from other substances. Along with opioids, alcohol is one of the only substances that have a withdrawal that can be so severe it causes death.

Withdrawal occurs when a substance is abruptly removed from your system. How long alcohol stays in your system will depend on many factors. In the case of alcohol, removal of the substance will set in if a heavy drinker suddenly stops or drastically reduces their alcohol intake. The person’s brain and body have become accustomed to having high levels of alcohol in their system, and the sudden removal will cause the brain to rebound, which can come with some intense, unfortunate symptoms.

Thankfully, fatalities and other withdrawal symptoms can be prevented if the person safely tapers off of their alcohol use. But before we get more into how to avoid alcohol withdrawal, let’s take a closer look at what causes alcohol withdrawal in the first place.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?

Simply put, withdrawal sets in when a person who has been abusing alcohol either completely stops, or drastically reduces their drinking, causing withdrawal symptoms to occur. What actually occurs within the body is a bit more complex.

Drinking alcohol causes the dopamine levels in the brain to elevate, producing pleasant feelings. This is why consuming alcohol can elevate a person’s mood, lower their inhibitions, and even increase self-confidence, this in spite of the fact that alcohol is considered a “depressant.” If the person were to stop drinking, alcohol would slowly leave their bloodstream, depending on their consumption. This is when withdrawal sets in, as the dopamine levels would drop, and the feelings that are associated with the elevated levels go away as well.

If the person has abused alcohol for a longer period of time, repeatedly altering the dopamine levels in their brain, the brain will actually begin to expect alcohol to be present. In these instances, the brain will stop producing dopamine without the presence of alcohol, which is how a person builds a tolerance to the substance — the more they drink, the more tolerant to alcohol they will become.

When this tolerance reaches the level that their brain depends upon alcohol to produce dopamine, the alcohol abuser will be at high risk for alcohol withdrawal symptoms if they were to stop drinking.

The neurotransmitter rebound, once alcohol has left the bloodstream, will actually make the brain hyperactive, causing the opposite effects of alcohol, including insomnia, panic, anxiety, and more. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms range widely in severity based on the person’s history with abuse and other factors but typically occur in three stages.

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

A person encountering alcohol withdrawal will typically be able to match their symptoms with one of three levels.

Stage 1: Minor Withdrawal – These symptoms show up as soon as just six to 12 hours after the person’s last drink and can include shaky hands, twitching, headaches, sweating, mild anxiety, nausea, insomnia, and even minor panic. Some may not experience anything worse than stage 1.

Stage 2: Mid-level Withdrawal – Those who have abused alcohol for a long time can expect further symptoms to set in, usually between 12 to 48 hours after their last drink. These will include more intense versions of the symptoms listed above, with the possibility of some additional auditory hallucinations, which can be difficult to deal with. The person may also encounter an irregular heartbeat, elevated pulse, as well as the possibility of a seizure.

Stage 3: Major Withdrawal – Things can still get worse. If the person experiences significant withdrawal, the worst of it will occur about 48 to 72 hours after the last drink, and peak at around the five-day point. At this level, the person may not know the hallucinations they are experiencing aren’t real.

The person may also encounter DTs, or delirium tremens, which is shakiness so severe it can be life-threatening. Dangerous versions of all of the proceeding symptoms can occur, and it is at this level where alcohol withdrawal can cause death.

While stage 3 is where things become really dangerous, minor and mid-level withdrawal are difficult to deal with as well. In general, the longer a person has abused alcohol, the more severe they can expect their withdrawal symptoms to be.

How To Quit Alcohol Without Withdrawal

Those who have abused alcohol for a long time aren’t necessarily doomed to withdrawal symptoms, either. While they are much more likely to deal with some forms of alcohol withdrawal, using a strategy called “tapering” may reduce the effects, however, people may find that process too difficult and will require entering a program. Tapering too quickly can be dangerous, making an alcohol addiction treatment center the safest and most effective option.

Who Is Most Likely To Have Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

We’ve mentioned it throughout, but it bears repeating, those who have abused alcohol for a long period of time will be the most likely to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms; however, it can vary based on several factors. These may include body composition and genetics, their length and history of abuse, amount of alcohol consumption, and others.

Someone who has gone on a bender and stayed drunk for several days can expect to feel some minor symptoms once they stop drinking as well, but it should not last long. Those who have become intoxicated every night for a month or more will be likely to experience more severe withdrawal symptoms. And those who have a history of alcohol abuse will, unfortunately, be very likely to encounter them again in the future.

Those who get drunk every now and then or drink in moderation are unlikely to ever encounter any alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

How To Avoid Alcohol Withdrawal

Since none of that sounds enjoyable, you’re probably wondering what you can do to avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The easiest answer is to never consume alcohol at all, or at the very least in moderation. But usually, alcohol withdrawal will only be an issue for those who have abused alcohol for a long period of time.  

Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment

Those experiencing minor withdrawal symptoms won’t need to seek any treatment, and can rather just wait for them to pass by resting and drinking a lot of fluids.

However, for those who do encounter more severe forms of alcohol withdrawal, the best course of action is to check into a professional rehab facility to help in your recovery. The professional staff will monitor the person’s recovery to make sure they are tapering safely, taking in the proper fluids, and eating a healthy diet. This provides the optimal environment for a safe recovery.

It’s in the person’s best interest to not attempt recovery on their own at home. Alcohol withdrawal can be difficult and quite dangerous, so to ensure a safe recovery process, check the person into an alcohol treatment center like Haven House.