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Alcohol Withdrawal: What to Expect

What is withdrawal?

Withdrawal is what happens to your body if you’re a heavy drinker and stop drinking alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms can be mild to severe. How bad they are depends on:

  • How much alcohol you drink

  • How long you've been drinking alcohol

  • If you have organ damage

Withdrawal can start 6 to 24 hours after your last drink. It often eases after a few days. It can be uncomfortable and unpleasant. But most people don’t have serious or life-threatening problems. Long-standing heavy drinkers can have bad withdrawal symptoms. This can lead to seizures. It may be deadly if not treated right away. These people must be under medical care during withdrawal.

What symptoms will I have?

Withdrawal symptoms can start if you stop drinking. Or if you cut back a lot on your drinking. Most people have mild symptoms, such as

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Headache

  • Vivid dreams

  • Irritability

  • Anxiety

  • Mild stomach problems

  • Tremors or “the shakes”

  • Sweating

  • Fast heartbeat (palpitations)

  • Higher blood pressure

More severe symptoms are:

  • Fever

  • Hallucinations

  • Delusions

  • Confusion

  • Agitation

  • Seizures

Can I do this at home?

How you manage your alcohol withdrawal depends on your past history of withdrawal symptoms. If you have a long history of chronic alcoholism, have had a seizure during a previous alcohol withdrawal, or been told you had "DTs" (delirium tremens) on a previous withdrawal, you will need close medical monitoring. You may be able to stay at home while you go through withdrawal. But you need to talk with an expert before making this decision. Work closely with an addiction specialist who has a medical background. Or talk with your healthcare provider. Based on your past drinking and past withdrawal symptoms, your provider may be able to tell how bad your symptoms will be.

If you are predicted to have mild withdrawal, you may be able stay at home. But you’ll need a caregiver to help you. You may also have daily visits and phone calls from a healthcare provider, such as a drug and alcohol nurse.

Your provider may give you a type of tranquilizing medicine. It may help keep withdrawal symptoms in check. He or she may also give you other medicines to ease headaches or nausea.

What happens if I am in a hospital or rehab center?

You may need to stay in the hospital or at the treatment center if your healthcare provider thinks you may have bad withdrawal symptoms. Or if you have some other health problem that can make withdrawal harder. Medical staff can then more closely watch you. They can also give you more medicine, if needed, including IV medicines.

Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2020
© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.