Alcohol Withdrawal – What It Is and How to Help

When you think of withdrawal, your first thought is probably of those trying to end their dependence on illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine. You may have images of someone who is terribly ill, sweating, shaking and experiencing any number of other symptoms, from headaches and vomiting to hallucinations.

What you might not realize is that withdrawing from regular, heavy alcohol use can actually create similar withdrawal symptoms. The severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms depends on how dependent the user is on the substance, but there is no denying that all of the symptoms are unpleasant – and some are actually dangerous – and that withdrawal can actually derail an addict’s attempts to get sober.

Common Withdrawal Symptoms

It might seem hard to believe, but anyone who has ever had a hangover has actually experienced mild withdrawal symptoms. Nausea, headache, dizziness and chills are all common – and many people who have had a hangover respond by saying “never again.”

However, for an addict, “never again” is often short-lived, and even when the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms begin, the craving for another drink continues. Often, for an addict, the need to have more alcohol is greater than the desire to feel better, and the cycle continues.

Alcohol withdrawal often begins with flu-like symptoms, and may be accompanied by the shakes, which can be mild or severe. Other common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include irritability, mood swings, anxiety and nervousness and depression.

However, for those with a severe dependency, quitting “cold-turkey” can produce even more severe symptoms. Heavy drinkers might experience more severe physical symptoms, as well as insomnia, heart palpitations, involuntary movements of the eye, clammy skin, tremors and abnormal movements.  Another common symptom of withdrawal, that can begin anywhere from a few hours to a few days after the last drink, is hallucinations. In most case, the hallucinations are visual, but they can sometimes be sounds or smells.

When the addict is withdrawing and has hallucinations, it’s not uncommon for them to also experience convulsions or seizures. The danger at this point is developing a condition called delirium tremens, or DT. DT is marked by confusion and disorientation, periods of hyperactivity and problems with the cardiovascular system. It’s important to seek medical treatment when this happens, as DT can lead to grand mal seizures, stroke or even death.

Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment

With the dangers of alcohol withdrawal so great, it’s important that addicts seek appropriate professional help to stop drinking. Some alcoholics can certainly stop drinking on their own, but for someone with a heavy dependency on alcohol, taking steps to properly end the dependence can prevent more serious health consequences.

Many rehabilitation centers, including those on, recommend a gradual approach to reducing alcohol dependency. Going through a good list of alcohol and drug treatment centers would be a great initial step towards recovery for those who are heavily dependent on the substance. Most treatment programs begin with a period of close medical observation, so healthcare providers can monitor vital signs and ensure proper fluid intake and nutrition. In some extreme cases, doctors may administer sedatives or tranquilizers to slow down the central nervous system. These drugs will allow the alcohol to leave the system without causing extreme pain or trauma to the patient.

Once the addict is stabilized, most go through a “drying out” period in which they are not allowed any alcohol at all. Care providers will watch closely for signs of DT, and treat them as needed. At this point, the addict will also begin undergoing therapy and other rehabilitation services, in order to work on the underlying causes of the addiction.

Withdrawal Can Determine Rehabilitation Success

Because withdrawal can be so difficult, many addicts try to quit several times before they successfully overcome their addictions. Many begin with good intentions, but the anxiety and physical symptoms that come along with not drinking are often more than anyone can bear. By seeking professional assistance, the chances of the withdrawal period going smoothly increase, and when that hurdle is cleared, the chances of success increase.

While experiencing mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms after an occasional overindulgence does not indicate that you have a dependency issue, if you find that you experience the symptoms on a regular basis or drink more in order to lessen the severity of – or eliminate – the symptoms, you may have a problem. Seek qualified professional help, and enjoy a life of sobriety.

About the Author:

Julie Jensen is a substance abuse counselor and alcohol withdrawal treatment educator. As a recovering alcoholic of 10 years, Julie uses and her own inspiring story to help others overcome dependency on drugs and alcohol.




Ana Fadich Tomsic

View posts by Ana Fadich Tomsic
Ana Fadich, MPH, CHES - Washington, D.C. - As Executive Vice President of Men's Health Network, acting in the capacity of chief operating officer, she oversees the execution of various programs and services related to outreach and health promotion, and the organization's various web platforms. She also supervises the organization’s international activities and relationships. MHN is a national non-profit, educational health organization dedicated to improving the health and well being of men and their families, where they live, work, play and pray. As a certified health educator (CHES), Ana develops targeted disease education materials & programs for men and their families on various health topics and leads discussions with participants at various community events in an effort to reduce health disparities that exist in underserved communities in the US.
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