Alcohol withdrawal is just as dangerous as alcoholism. Alcoholics and their loved ones often mistake it for a simple side effect associated with recovery. Withdrawal is life-threatening for many alcoholics, and the immediate risks often outweigh the benefits.
It seems counterintuitive to suggest alcoholics avoid quitting to minimize their risk of withdrawal, but medical professionals recommend detoxing in a medical facility.
Withdrawal begins approximately 8 hours after the last drink, but can occur as quickly as two hours after a person gives up drinking. It lasts anywhere from a week to several weeks depending on the severity of its symptoms.
Does Everyone Suffer from Withdrawal?
Understanding withdrawal is challenging. It’s not always the same for alcoholics. There are three stages to alcohol withdrawal, but not everyone experiences all of them, any of them, or a combination when they quit drinking. There are too many factors that work together to determine whether an alcoholic will experience any symptoms when quitting. These factors include:
- Family history of alcohol abuse
- How long someone has been an alcoholic
- How much someone drinks
- What someone drinks
- Presence of other health issues
- How much stress alcoholics suffer
- Medical history
An alcoholic suffering every day for more than a decade is more likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms than an alcoholic suffering for a few months. Someone with mental health disorders is more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms than someone with a clean bill of health. It’s impossible to predict which alcoholics will experience symptoms of withdrawal, or if they’ll be serious.
The First Stage of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal begins when an alcoholic quits drinking. It might begin anywhere from two hours to a solid day after someone consumes that last beverage. The average amount of time it takes someone to begin showing signs of withdrawal is 8 hours. The first stage is the least severe, but symptoms vary from person to person. They might include various stages of severity of the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Heart palpitations
- Foggy brain
- Mood swings
While not everyone experiences the first stage, many people experience at least some degree of withdrawal from this stage. Some alcoholics experience very minor symptoms, while some experience them at their worst. Predicting what might occur when an alcoholic takes that last drink is impossible, but these are the most typical symptoms everyone experiences.
Alcohol is a depressant, so all people who quit will experience some feelings of sadness, melancholy, or depression. Nearly everyone who stops drinking feels tired once their good mood dissipates. Mood swings are common as a person comes down off their drunken high. Tremors aren’t as common, but long-term alcoholics tend to experience them.
The first stage often includes vomiting, which can induce dehydration. If an alcoholic is vomiting and not keeping liquids down, it’s imperative they seek medical attention. Dehydration is the first step in organ failure. Stage one usually lasts around a day once it begins.
The Second Stage of Withdrawal
As the withdrawal symptoms from stage one begin to subside, relief is still far off. The second stage of withdrawal is more serious. It usually begins one day after drinking ends, but it can take as many as three days to begin. Symptoms include:
- Rise in body temperature
- High blood pressure
- Abnormal heart rate
- Breathing problems
- Mood swings
Once an alcoholic begins experiencing stage two, symptoms can last two to three days. Just like the vomiting that comes with stage one, the sweating that occurs during this part of alcohol detox can cause dehydration. It’s dangerous, and it can lead to more serious health issues. Not all alcoholics experience all of these symptoms, but they’re all common. A doctor should monitor high blood pressure, body temperature, and abnormal heart rates. It’s imperative alcoholics find medical attention at this stage if they haven’t already.
The Final Stage of Withdrawal
This is the most dangerous stage of alcohol withdrawal. It’s the one that produces the most serious symptoms. It’s the one that might end in death. Symptoms begin approximately three days following the last drink an alcoholic takes, and they can last for weeks. Symptoms include:
- High fever
Each of these symptoms require medical attention. High fevers are dangerous by themselves, but they become even more dangerous when they are accompanied by hallucinations and seizures. In general, it’s the side effects of seizures that cause the most damage to your health. It’s the falling, the potential head injuries and trauma, and the choking that might occur in the middle of a seizure that pose the biggest threat to an alcoholic’s health.
These symptoms typically begin to subside after a week, but they can last in a less dangerous capacity for many weeks.
Medical professionals recommend professional alcohol detox for anyone looking to quit drinking. It’s less common for withdrawal to occur when an alcoholic slowly stops drinking. It’s most common to go through this when someone quits drinking all at once. Since the side effects of withdrawal are so dangerous to a person’s help, professional supervision during detox is necessary.
Weaning a person slowly from alcohol provides fewer shocks to the alcoholic’s body. It’s one way to avoid going through withdrawal, but it’s not always the answer. Many don’t have the ability to give up drinking a little at a time without help, which is why cold-turkey quitting is the choice so many alcoholics make.
Finding an appropriate detox facility increases a person’s chances of minimizing the withdrawal symptoms that typically occur in the days following the end. Supervised treatment makes the process safer, and it increases the likelihood it will work in the long run.
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