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Alcohol Withdrawal

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Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a set of symptoms that people have when they suddenly stop drinking after using alcohol for a long period of time. Withdrawal symptoms rarely occur in people who only drink once in a while. Symptoms usually occur in people who have been drinking heavily for weeks or months and then suddenly stop drinking. People who have gone through withdrawal before are more likely to have withdrawal symptoms each time they quit drinking.1

The signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal typically appear between 6 and 48 hours after heavy alcohol consumption decreases. Initial symptoms may include headache, tremor, sweating, agitation, anxiety and irritability, nausea and vomiting, heightened sensitivity to light and sound, disorientation, difficulty concentrating, and in more serious cases, transient hallucinations.2 These manifestations result from alcohol-induced imbalances in the brain chemistry that cause excessive neuronal activity if the alcohol is withheld.3

The worst form of withdrawal is called "DTs" (delirium tremens). DTs can be very serious if not treated by a doctor.1 More serious withdrawal symptoms occur in approximately 10 percent of patients. These symptoms include a low-grade fever, rapid breathing, tremor, and profuse sweating. Seizures may occur in more than 5 percent of untreated patients in acute alcohol withdrawal. The mortality rate among patients exhibiting DT's is 5 to 25 percent. The DT's are a serious manifestation of alcohol dependence that develops 1 to 4 days after the onset of acute alcohol withdrawal in persons who have been drinking excessively for years. Co-occurring medical problems may obscure the diagnosis and treatment of DT's or worsen the outcome. Such medical problems include altered blood chemistry, certain infections, and Wernicke's syndrome.4

Alcohol withdrawal is a clinical syndrome that affects people accustomed to regular alcohol intake who either decrease their alcohol consumption or stop drinking completely. In these people, the central nervous system has adjusted to the constant presence of alcohol in the body and compensates for alcohol's depressive effects on both brain function and the communication among nerve cells. When the alcohol level is suddenly lowered, the brain remains in a hyperactive, or hyperexcited, state, causing withdrawal syndrome.3

If people go through withdrawal a number of times without getting the right treatment, the symptoms may get worse each time. Those who have had a bad withdrawal before and those who have other health problems, such as infections, heart disease, lung disease or a history of seizures should see a doctor to discuss treatment. Medicines can control the shakiness, anxiety and confusion that come with alcohol withdrawal. Only a doctor can prescribe these medicines. If you take the medicines at an early stage of the withdrawal, they may keep your symptoms from getting worse.1


  1. American Academy of Family Physicians. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. 2000-2007
  2. Hugh Myrick, MD, Raymond F. Anton, MD. Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal. Alcohol Health & Research World. Vol. 22, No. 1, pages 38-43, 1998
  3. Richard Saitz, MD. Introduction to Alcohol Withdrawal. Alcohol Health & Research World. Vol. 22, No. 1, pages 9-12, 1998
  4. Louis A. Trevisan, MD, Nashaat Boutros, MD, Ismene L. Petrakis, MD, John H. Krystal, MD. Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal. Alcohol Health & Research World. Vol. 22, No. 1, pages 61-66, 1998

This page was last modified on : 10/28/2013

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