What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Withdrawal refers to a set of physical and mental symptoms experienced when someone quits or reduces their consumption of a substance on which they have become dependent. People who develop alcohol dependence face the prospect of going through alcohol withdrawal should they want to quit drinking.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant and, in some instances, dangerous. Alcohol withdrawal can be challenging to endure; however, successful management of the withdrawal period can play a crucial role in early recovery from alcohol use disorder. Professional supervision and medical care can make the process of withdrawal safer and less painful.1

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal produces a broad range of symptoms.2 It is difficult to predict how severe someone’s withdrawal from alcohol will be and who will experience severe symptoms, which is why medical supervision during detox is often advised.1,3

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may include:3,4

  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Insomnia.
  • Headache.
  • Sweating.
  • Elevated heart rate.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Alcohol cravings.
  • Tremors.
  • Auditory and visual hallucinations.

Alcohol withdrawal may progress to seizures or in rare cases, delirium tremens (DTs).  Delirium tremens is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal; it is characterized by profoundly altered consciousness (i.e., delirium) and significant autonomic nervous system dysfunction. It is an emergency that requires immediate medical aid and monitoring.2 As many as half of those who experience a withdrawal seizure will go on to develop delirium tremens.2

What Is Delirium Tremens?

Delirium tremens, or “DTs”—is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal characterized by the sudden onset of extreme agitated confusion (delirium) and other severe symptoms.5

About 3-5% of people in alcohol withdrawal will experience delirium tremens.6 Treatment is crucial for those who suffer from DTs; without appropriate treatment, it’s been estimated that as many as 37% of those with delirium tremens may die.6,7

Though delirium tremens is rare, it may be more common in people who’ve had a previous history of seizures or DTs, who have detoxed from alcohol before, who have underlying medical or mental health conditions, or who have been misusing alcohol for more than 10 years.6,8

Those who chronically misuse alcohol have a 5-10% chance of developing DTs in their lifetime.6

Symptoms of Delirium Tremens

Delirium tremens is a life-threatening condition marked by severe symptoms such as:2,9

  • Profound confusion.
  • Changing mental status.
  • Extreme agitation.
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and touch.
  • Rapid heart rate and breathing.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High body temperature.
  • Profuse sweating.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Tremors.
  • Seizures.

Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

The alcohol withdrawal timelines may vary greatly from person to person. The following is a very general guideline:1,4,6,9,10

  • The first symptoms may arise within 6 to 24 hours.
  • These initial symptoms often peak in severity and then begin to resolve over the next 24 to 48 hours.
  • Should seizures occur, they usually do so within 24 to 48 hours of the last drink.
  • If DTs develop, symptoms tend to arise within 2 to 4 days of the last drink, though DTs remain a risk for up to 10 days. Symptoms may last up to 5 days.

In most cases, withdrawal symptoms subside in a matter of days. However, they may remain for weeks in some cases.8

What Is Alcohol Detox?

When conducted properly, detoxification allows patients to safely overcome their physical dependence on alcohol.1 Safe detoxification can be achieved in both inpatient and outpatient settings depending on the patient’s needs.2

Alcohol withdrawal can cause a wide range of distressing symptoms, but the potential for seizures and other withdrawal complications is great enough that medical supervision may be needed.1

Patients experiencing or expected to experience more severe alcohol withdrawal may benefit from the 24/7 care provided at an inpatient facility and the presence of hospital staff to immediately respond to medical emergencies.3

The treatment team at a medical detox program can help to reduce severity of withdrawal by monitoring and treating physical and mental health symptoms, safely prescribing medication, and making adjustments to the treatment regimen if necessary.1

Medication can help manage acute alcohol withdrawal by reducing the risk and severity of seizures and making the patient more comfortable.

Medications Used for Alcohol Withdrawal

Medications can prevent complications and life-threatening symptoms from arising or help to address them if they do. As part of a professional medical detox protocol, medications and medical monitoring can be provided in both inpatient and outpatient settings, depending on patient needs.1

Medications commonly used to treat alcohol withdrawal include:1

  • Long-acting benzodiazepines. Diazepam (Valium) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium) are some of the benzodiazepines used for alcohol withdrawal because they mitigate withdrawal symptoms and reduce the risk of seizures. After the patient’s withdrawal symptoms have improved and stabilized, gradual tapering of benzodiazepines may begin.

Other medications that are sometimes used to manage alcohol withdrawal are:1

  • Barbiturates. Though increasingly rarely used due to the risk of overdose, toxicity, and inherent misuse potential, drugs like phenobarbital may still be used in highly supervised environments to treat alcohol withdrawal.
  • Antipsychotics. These may be given to manage extreme agitation and delirium, as well as some of the features of psychosis—such as acute delusions and hallucinations—that sometimes arise during alcohol withdrawal. Care must be taken when used, as some antipsychotics lower seizure thresholds.
  • Beta blockers and alpha adrenergic agonists (e.g., clonidine). These may be used to manage some symptoms that might not have responded well to other treatment agents, such as rapid heart rate and high blood pressure. Their effects are modest, however, and do not prevent seizures or delirium.

After Alcohol Withdrawal: Rehabilitation Treatment

Breaking the physical hold of alcohol misuse clears the way for mental health professionals to step in and help individuals develop the skills necessary for long-term recovery.1

Alcohol addiction is a complex but treatable disease that encompasses much more than physical dependence.12 Once withdrawal symptoms are managed and the patient is stabilized, they then need to confront the issues that led them to drink.13

This process may begin during detox and continue in another rehabilitation setting. Further alcohol rehab treatment may involve the use of various methods of therapy, non-addictive relapse prevention medications, alcohol misuse education, life skills training, and 12-step or other mutual support groups.13

Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment in Las Vegas, Nevada

Alcohol treatment programs offered at Desert Hope Treatment Center incorporate several evidence-based rehabilitation therapies. Our mission is to help you recover, and we’re available 24/7 to answer your questions and tell you more about the levels of addiction treatment offered for alcohol misuse recovery.

Call us now at to learn more about alcohol rehab in Las Vegas. Compassionate admissions navigators can help you check your insurance coverage for an alcohol treatment program or discuss other ways to pay for rehab.

Start the rehab admissions process today by reaching out a member of the Desert Hope support team. You can also quickly and securely now.

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