Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe. Degree of severity and number of symptoms often depends on how long a person has used alcohol habitually, and how much alcohol one has used on a regular basis. People who have consumed small amounts of alcohol for a short period of time usually experience only mild symptoms. Those who have used large amounts of alcohol for a long period of time can have extremely severe symptoms, called Delirium Tremens (DTs), which can be life-threatening.
Mild symptoms of withdrawal include irritability, anxiety, fatigue, mild cravings for alcohol, and insomnia. People may feel slightly shaky, or have cold and clammy hands. Stopping drinking can also affect appetite, making it difficult to eat, since it can cause both nausea and vomiting.
More significant symptoms include the possibility of experiencing the DTs. People may have dilated pupils, involuntary movements, and tremors. If a person is at risk for the DTs, then he or she should seek a treatment facility or hospital, where symptoms can be addressed, and medical emergencies can be handled.
The DTs can create confusion and disturbing visual hallucinations. People may also experience heart arrhythmias or palpitations, high fever, and convulsions. A medical facility can stop many of these symptoms by giving low dose anti-convulsants or barbiturates during the first few days of alcohol withdrawal.
It is tremendously important that people with a long history of alcohol use withdraw under medical care. Irregular heart rhythms and convulsions can cause death if not addressed. Untreated DTs can cause death in up to 20% of people undergoing withdrawal.
Physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal tend to occur about 12 hours after a person’s last drink, and will peak within two to three days. Insomnia, mood instability and fatigue may linger for several months after one has “dried out.” Persisting symptoms can be psychological as well as physical. Since it is estimated than as many as half of all alcoholics drink to “medicate” a psychiatric condition, treatment for persisting conditions may result in greater psychological wellness and comfort.
Maintaining sobriety is further helped by regular attendance at support groups for alcoholics like Alcoholics Anonymous. Some find that voluntary hospitalization at a treatment center is beneficial in maintaining sobriety during the first months.
While it is important to remember that people wishing to stop using alcohol should seek medical treatment, this should not be seen as encouragement to continue drinking. The risk of continuing drinking, which may result in early death, is much higher than that of a person who stops drinking. Thus fear of severe symptoms should not keep a person who wishes to quit drinking from quitting. The person should merely do so under a doctor’s care, and can do so at virtually any hospital in the country.