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Alcohol withdrawal: Know the signs

By Tim Woodley


Whether for the benefit of a loved one or for yourself and your own path to recovery, knowing the signs of alcohol withdrawal is important. Alcohol is deceptive; it’s so widespread in our culture and media that we’re often inclined to think of it as a benign substance that can, for some, become addictive. How harmful, then, could it really be to just stop drinking?

The answer? Very – lethally so, in some cases. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are usually strongest when a person suddenly stops drinking after prolonged heavy use. It’s a sign that someone is becoming physically dependent on alcohol and it’s a thing that must be eased into lest the individual risk their health or potentially their very life. Today we’re looking into these symptoms of alcohol withdrawal in more detail.


Withdrawal symptoms as a timeline

Firstly, it’s important to be aware that alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary not only from person to person but on the time since someone had their last drink. In extreme cases, withdrawal effects can be as little as two hours after a prolonged heavy user has had their last drink, with symptoms typically ‘peaking’ for the individual in the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours after last consumption.

This is helpful to know if you’re concerned about a friend or loved one’s potential symptoms. While it’s positive to be armed with this kind of knowledge, however, it’s equally important to accept that you’re not an expert on the subject; some experience little to no symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, whereas others may prove susceptible to more serious side effects.

Withdrawal symptoms are dangerous, and you should seek urgent medical attention if you or someone you’re looking after is experiencing repeated vomiting, severe shaking, hallucinations or confusion.


The first day: Common withdrawal signs

This is a particularly turbulent and challenging time for the person in question. From as little as six hours or sooner, common symptoms begin to appear. Agitation and anxiety are likely, with the behaviour of the individual shifting drastically as the physical need for alcohol makes itself known. This is commonly followed by headaches and shaking and, as the withdrawal begins proper, vomiting and extreme nausea.

As the twelve to twenty-four-hour period approaches, physical symptoms usually become more prominent. It’s common to see signs of disorientation and confusion, with the more widely recognised symptom of hand tremors sometimes progressing into periods of full-body seizure.

If you’re concerned about the health of yourself or a loved one at this stage, the best immediate action to take is to simply call emergency services by dialling 999 in your phone or handset. You will be advised by a professional on steps to take right now, and emergency medical technicians may be dispatched to help.


The second day: New symptoms may appear

As the second day of abstinence comes, new signs of withdrawal may appear. Physical seizures can continue. This sometimes can contribute to a new symptom: insomnia. This is particularly serious for the individual as it disrupts the short periods of rest and recovery the body needs so strongly during this trying time. High blood pressure may also occur in even an otherwise healthy individual, and high fevers and excessive sweating even in cold weather are common.

It may be surprising to many at this stage to witness signs of visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations. Just as the first six to twelve hours often include confusion and disorientation, the second day of abstinence can bring about this more psychological symptom in varying degrees.


The third day and beyond: Symptoms improve

In most cases, symptoms of withdrawal ease and improve within five days of abstinence. Again, though, this is no more than a general rule; some people can experience greater periods of withdrawal and some less. This is heavily dependent on several factors including frequency of consumption, medical history, general fitness and co-occurring health conditions such as depression.

Generally speaking, though, it’s at this point where health and wellbeing begin to improve. For many alcohol dependent people, making it to the third day of their abstinence is a drastic challenge; the most serious of their symptoms have been survived, and while the journey to recovery is only just beginning, their physical and mental health will begin to improve and return. As any recovered or recovering alcohol dependent person will come to know intimately, however, the urge to drink will be something that is lived with for good.


A brighter future ahead

We hope you’ve found this breakdown of alcohol withdrawal symptoms informative and helpful. This is a serious subject, and we’d like to conclude with the simple message that, while it can be scary to read these symptoms and to understand the severity of them, things can and will get better.

For those with severe alcohol dependency a medically assisted detox is a necessity to reduce the risk of seizures amongst other symptoms. However, a medical detox should not be seen as the solution to alcohol dependency but merely the start of the treatment process, as a detox on its own will not provide long term stability.

Recovery is not only possible but very doable with the right help. Help Me Stop’s breakthrough Dayhab programme is designed to work around the common commitments of family and working life, and we’re proud to provide a system of recovery and support that is proven to be as effective as more expensive and less flexible residential models. Learn more about us right here.

If you’d like to speak to one of us right away, please do so. Call us on 0208 191 8920, message us on our website’s live chat function or reach out using our contact form.

Help Me Stop does not provide detoxes but we are happy to discuss the potential need for one and signpost to several providers, some of whom may be able to detox the person at home. Once the detox is complete, our Dayhab programme is ideally placed to reduce the risk of relapse.


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