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Recognizing Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal



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Recognizing alcohol withdrawal signs early on can greatly benefit someone who is suffering from alcohol dependence as it helps them address the problem of alcoholism, as well as help prevent the progression of withdrawals. 

Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic relapsing disease that is characterized by the American Society of Addiction Medicine as impaired control over drinking despite adverse consequences and distortions in thinking. Excessive drinking over a prolonged period causes your body to form tolerance and dependence on the addictive substance. Tolerance is characterized by the need for higher and higher amounts of alcohol to feel the same effects as before. Dependence is a condition that causes your body to grow accustomed to the effects of alcohol and leaving your body unable to function without it. The consequence of developing alcohol dependence is withdrawal. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms is one of the earliest signs of an impending AUD. So recognizing the signs can actually benefit those who may be on the verge of developing an AUD or those who already have developed it, take the necessary steps to address the issue before it gets out of hand.

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal consist of a collection of physical and psychological side effects that can range from mild to severe. Some of the mild symptoms of AWS are experienced as soon as eight hours after the last drink, and depending on the magnitude of your AUD; more symptoms will manifest 24 hours later. While most side effects of AWS dissipate within a week, some may persist for weeks or even months. However, it’s important to note that not everyone experiences AWS in the same way, and the signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may vary from one person to another.

Alcohol Withdrawal Signs vs. Hangover

While some of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) may look similar to a hangover, they are, in fact, not the same. The main difference between the two conditions is the cause. A hangover occurs when a person drinks too much in one sitting, while a withdrawal is caused when a person with alcohol use disorder decreases their intake or stops drinking abruptly.

Excessive drinking can irritate the stomach lining, cause dehydration, and inflammatory response in the body.  When the effects of the alcohol wear off, this leads to common hangover symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and fatigue. This is very different from alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

During the development of AUD, the body starts to rely on the effects of alcohol to function on a day-to-day basis due to the changes made in the central nervous system and neurotransmitter production in the brain. When the body is cut off from alcohol abruptly, it causes the development of withdrawal symptoms. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, AUD is defined as a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. 

A doctor can help diagnose AWS by taking a patient’s medical history and conducting a physical exam. They may also ask you a few questions about your drinking practices to help with the diagnosis. Patients will undergo a few tests such as toxicology screening; to measure the alcohol content in their system, blood test, and imaging test to show if organs such as the liver have been affected by long-term drinking habits.

If you think you’re suffering from AUD, Futures Recovery Healthcare is here for you. Speak to our team of caring and compassionate addiction specialists for guidance and support. AUD is a serious health condition that can lead to various physical and psychological health complications if left untreated. So start your recovery journey today with our dedicated team of professionals who understand just what you’re going through, as some of them have been just where you are right now.

Recognizing Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal

Moderate vs. Excessive Drinking

We talk a lot about excessive drinking, so how do we know if and when we are drinking too much?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. This definition of moderate drinking is considered safe only for people over the age of 21.

Other forms of excessive drinking may also include:

  • Heavy drinking or binge drinking
  • Drinking that’s done by anyone who is pregnant
  • Drinking that’s done by anyone under the age of 21

Binge drinking is the act of consuming multiple drinks within a short space of time, one after the other. For women, that’s four or more drinks, and for men, it’s five or more. Heavy drinking occurs when women have eight or more drinks a week and men have 15 or more drinks per week. However, it’s worth noting that not all who drink excessively go on to develop alcoholism or AUD.

Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Now that we understand the difference between withdrawals and hangovers, let’s take a closer look at the stages of AWS. The American Academy of Family Physicians outlines three stages of AWS, which include mild, moderate, and severe.

The mild stage or first stage of alcohol withdrawal syndrome includes symptoms such as:

  • Headaches
  • Slight tremors
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Heart palpitations

These symptoms can occur within six to 12 hours after the last drink. Although these signs are easier to spot, these symptoms can sometimes be misidentified as a hangover.

The moderate or second stage of alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Mild hyperthermia 
  • Rapid abnormal breathing 

The moderate stage of withdrawals includes a combination of both stage one and stage two symptoms. These symptoms generally appear within 12 to 24 hours later. Within 24 to 72 hours, various symptoms may have peaked and begun to level off or resolve, while some more protracted symptoms may persist for weeks or longer.

The severe stage of alcohol withdrawal symptoms includes a combination of moderate symptoms and Delirium Tremens (DTs). Delirium tremens is a life-threatening complication that occurs between 48 to 96 hours after the last drink. Symptoms of DTs may include:

  • Seizures
  • Visual or auditory hallucinations
  • Disorientation and impaired attention
  • Severe mood swings
  • Increased sensitivity to light, sound, and touch
  • Fatigue
  • Body tremors

If appropriate medical attention is not given, patients can easily progress from stage two to three rapidly. Patients are most at risk of experiencing seizures 24 to 48 hours after the last drink.

The severity of alcohol withdrawal syndrome can vary dramatically from one person to another. However, certain factors such as the timeframe of abuse, quantity and frequency of consumption, polydrug abuse, family history of addiction, pre-existing mental and health conditions, and history of relapses can help determine the severity of a person’s AWS.

Getting Treatment

While certain patients may experience persistent withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue, and mood changes for months after their last drink, a full recovery is possible through a medical detox program and effective withdrawal management. Recognizing each stage of withdrawal can help you understand the severity of your symptoms and address them accordingly. Seeking help when you know things are getting worse can certainly save your life. While quitting alcohol is never easy, it is important to know that there are many treatment programs and facilities available all across the U.S to help you and support you through your journey.

Seeking to recover from alcoholism is commendable as this condition affects not only the addict but also those around them. However, seeking to quit drinking safely is the most important decision to make regarding addiction recovery. While taking the first step to treat your addiction is a life-changing decision with many positive outcomes, it’s important to remember that it’s not safe to go at it alone.

If you or someone you love wishes to quit drinking and overcome their addiction, know that you’re not alone. At Futures, we have a dedicated team of professionals and experts who are ready to help you on your journey to sobriety. Futures Recovery Healthcare provides a comprehensive treatment program that centers around individualized care to help each and every patient through their recovery process. 


Our specialized staff stands ready to help you through this challenging time.

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(866) 351-7588
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