Factsheets Alcohol and Withdrawal

What is alcohol withdrawal?

People may have withdrawal symptoms when they cut down or stop drinking suddenly, after drinking a lot of alcohol for some time.

What causes it? 

When your body gets used to having a lot of alcohol, it changes how it works. Alcohol is a sedative – the body tries to work against those effects. When you suddenly take the alcohol away, these changes are still there. Your nervous system will be over-active for a few days, as it adjusts to alcohol not being there.

What are the symptoms? 

Withdrawal symptoms depend on how much you were drinking, and for how long. Some people will only have a few mild symptoms. Others may have many severe symptoms, and will need medical treatment. 

Mild to moderate symptoms 

May start around 6-48 hours after people stop drinking or cut down. They last 1-5 days. 

  • Shaking 
  • Sweating 
  • Racing heart and high blood pressure 
  • Feeling sick
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Feeling depressed, anxious or restless
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia or disturbed sleep (sleep problems can last some time after people stop drinking).

Complications 

Fits (Grand mal seizures) can also happen over the first 2 days or so.

Very severe symptoms 

(delirium tremens or DT’s) may start 2- 7 days after people stop drinking or cut down. They last around 3-10 days.

  • Hallucinations (often including things crawling over the body) and delusions
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Trembling and agitation

Do I need to see a doctor? 

Yes. It is hard to know how your body will react when you stop drinking or cut down. 

Talk to a doctor BEFORE you cut back your drinking - especially if you have had severe withdrawal symptoms in the past.

Your doctor can give you treatments to reduce the symptoms. A short course of a sedative (such as clonazepam) can stop your nervous system getting overactive. Withdrawal can damage your brain, and puts your whole body under stress. You may need someone to watch how you are going –someone who knows the danger signs, and can give you treatment right away if you need it. There are ‘detox’ centres that can do that.

How can I manage mild symptoms?

  • Have a family member or friend stay with you for a few days to help you through the difficult times.
  • Drink plenty of water and eat regular meals
  • Distract yourself with interesting activities
  • Relax during the day, but don’t sleep. You don’t want to mess up your sleeping patterns
  • Take Vitamin B1, to help aid your body’s recovery.