Rehab 4 Addiction

Alcohol use disorder is a serious and increasing problem in society. To stop drinking alcohol when you suffer from alcoholism, it’s likely you will experience withdrawal symptoms. The unpleasant sensations that commonly occur during the withdrawal period can entail a struggle, making it ultimately more difficult to stop reverting to alcohol use.

Alcohol use disorder means you will have little control over your behaviour. In many different cases, one might struggle with withdrawal symptoms, depending on your level of addiction of course.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) is when a heavy drinker abruptly stops drinking. It will impact someone both physically and mentally. Depending on the level of addiction, you might suffer from things like mild anxiety or things like delirium Tremens, which is a serious condition.

Where can I begin an alcohol detox?

At Rehab 4 Addiction, we are able to signpost you to a variety of organisations offering a medicated alcohol detox. This includes NHS treatment taking place at your local hospital, as well as private detox providers. All treatment providers are either Care Quality Commission (CQC) or Care Inspectorate regulated facilities.  All treatment providers adhere to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines.

Defining alcohol withdrawal during alcohol detox

Alcohol withdrawal occurs when someone suffering from alcohol use disorder suddenly stops drinking, resulting in symptoms that range from mild to severe during detoxification. In cases of severe long-term alcohol use disorder, it may be fatal. Withdrawal is most common in adults but can also occur in teenagers or children.

While a night of drinking may produce similar initial symptoms, alcohol withdrawal syndrome typically stems from heavy drinking over a long period of time. For some, drinking for months or even weeks then stopping abruptly can cause acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms. For others, years of alcohol abuse can trigger more serious side effects.

Why does alcohol withdrawal occur when you detox from alcohol?

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur in response to altering neurotransmitters in the brain. When a person drinks, the relaxed, friendly feelings alcohol inspires is actually due to the brain increasing the amount of its chief inhibitory neurotransmitter known as gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is the neurotransmitter that blocks specific signals in the nervous system, slowing down the brain.

Continuously depressing the central nervous system and altering brain chemistry with alcohol abuse creates a dependency on the substance to feel good again. In addition, over time, someone suffering with alcohol use disorder will need more drinks in one sitting to feel the desired effects, worsening the outcome on their body.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are caused by an alteration in this gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors. GABA receptors are responsible for maintaining baseline levels in the central nervous system (CNS).

Heavy alcohol use numbs these receptors, which is why those suffering from alcohol use disorder need to consume more drinks over time to feel its effects. When these receptors are numbed, the brain accommodates by shutting down the GABA receptors, leading to CNS over-excitability.

The CNS over-excitability results from the brain’s attempt to maintain equilibrium in the system. Therefore, when heavy alcohol users suddenly cease or slow drinking, the “new” CNS baseline is much higher than normal.

Why are alcohol withdrawal symptoms during alcohol detox are dangerous?

Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous if you have preexisting conditions like seizures or mental health issues, or if you have previously suffered from alcohol abuse and tried to detox. Withdrawal can be fatal or dangerous for others in cases of mental instability and delirium. It’s thus essential to undergo detox under medically supervised conditions, rather than at home without these safeguards.

The suitability of a home-based detox is determined after an assessent. You must generally be drinking less than 30 units of alcohol per day in order to qualify for a home alcohol detox. The psychiatrist can give you some useful strategies to cut down the amount of alcohol you are drinking so you can begin a home detox.

In many situations, a home-based detox may be a suitable choice.

When an addict decides to go into recovery, the body does not immediately know how to respond to the chemical imbalance. Through years of alcohol dependency, the brain naturally stops producing normal levels of GABA and patients suffering from alcohol withdrawal often feel anxious, shaky and sick.

During the uncomfortable process, doctors may prescribe medications to reduce symptom severity.

Can you die during alcohol detox from alcohol withdrawal?

Severe and long-term heavy drinkers force their bodies to build a ‘homeostasis’ state, and when alcohol is removed the balance is extremely upset. There are a number of serious and extreme physical sensations that could increase the risk of fatality.

In some cases, improperly handling the detoxification stage can prove fatal, so long-term sufferers of alcohol use disorder should always seek medical help during the process.

Below we have listed the main types of severe withdrawal symptoms which if left untreated could result in death:

  1. Delirium Tremens: Delirium Tremens is a severe side effect of alcohol withdrawal that is marked by sudden confusion. It typically occurs 48 to 72 hours after abstaining from alcohol and lasts two to three days. However, symptoms of the condition may arise up to 10 days after the last drink. During this time, patients may experience shakiness, increased heart rate, profuse sweating and auditory, visual or tactile hallucinations [1]
  2. Seizures: Seizures occasionally occur as a side effect of Delirium Tremens. However, seizures can occur outside the presence of the condition as well. With alcohol withdrawal, generalized tonic-clonic seizures and partial seizures are triggered in the brainstem and cause symptoms like blackouts, stiffness and intense jerking motions
  3. Hypophosphatemia: Hypophosphatemia is a condition that occurs when there are dangerously low levels of phosphate in a patient’s blood. Phosphate is an electrolyte related to producing energy and the functioning of nerves. Low levels of this electrolyte, combined with the general low nourished diet of someone who suffers from alcohol addiction and disturbances in their internal acids, can lead to health risks. This can be fatal as it can cause some of the main organs to become hypofunctioning (not functioning well enough to do their job.)
  4. Alcoholic ketoacidosis: Alcoholic ketoacidosis is a state which affects the metabolic systems in the body when someone drinks too much alcohol for an extended amount of time. Severe drinking habits generally coincides with a poor diet and malnourishment, and heavy drinkers often do not eat regularly. Excessive drinking can also result in frequent vomiting. All of these factors result in a state of starvation, which then causes the body to produce less insulin

It is possible to die from alcohol withdrawal especially if you have a history of epilepsy. Withdrawal delirium can also cause people to inflict self-harm. Other medical conditions associated with alcohol abuse (liver disease, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, gut issues) may cause life-threatening complications for alcohol withdrawal patients.

According to current research, of all patients who are hospitalised and experience withdrawal delirium, less than 4% die. These fatalities are normally due to:

  1. Issues arising from ‘grand mal’ seizures (where patients lose consciousness and experience aggressive contractions of the muscle)
  2. Malignant Hyperthermia (heat shock due to alcohol withdrawal)
  3. Heart failure (due to prolonged pressure on the heart’s ability to pump blood)

alcohol withdrawal

Psychological alcohol withdrawal symptoms during an alcohol detox

Many alcohol dependents will come across many mental health symptoms during their withdrawal stage. Depression, anxiety, and irritability are some of the most common. However, these are underlying issues most of the time that could have driven one to drink.

A lot of people who have been suffering from anxiety and depression self-medicate with alcohol, which could cause a vicious cycle to happen.

Drinking alcohol might help someone with depression or anxiety in the short term, but binge drinking will lower the serotonin levels in your brain after a few hours, which regulates the feeling of happiness in your brain.

You would feel even worse the next day, and it would push you to drink more, which in turn would exacerbate your mental health issue. After a period of prolonged drinking, your serotonin levels would be at a very low point, which they could develop into clinical depression.

Restlessness and insomnia are some of the other well-known withdrawal symptoms. There are many reasons why one could suffer from insomnia during withdrawal. It might be a direct result of the depression caused by the lack of serotonin in your brain. Many people with depression will struggle with sleeping.

Not only will alcohol lower your serotonin levels, but also that of another chemical in your brain, dopamine. Dopamine is linked to your motivation levels and reinforcing pleasure.

Physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms during an alcohol detox

A well-known and frequently documented alcohol withdrawal symptom is what is colloquially called ‘the shakes,’ which is a physical sensation that many who suffer from alcohol use disorder or abuse experience.

The ‘shakes’ are a type of body tremor that cannot be controlled, and they vary in severity from person to person depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, the period of time, and the general health of those suffering from alcohol use disorder.

As a physical symptom that occurs as alcohol is being detoxed through the body, the ‘shakes’ do generally disappear once the withdrawal process is complete.

However, as a sign of stress on the central nervous system, the shakes can become worse if the individual is experiencing high flying emotions or post-alcohol related anxiety.

It is therefore important to remember that those who are anxious about detox and withdrawal, trembling could increase and appear worse.

Shaking will also occur because alcohol abuse has damaged your nerve cells. Alcohol is considered a depressant, by reducing activities in your brain.

Your brain becomes gradually more used to that consistent low level of stimulation as one maintains heavy or frequent drinking.

Once you stop drinking, your brain gets stimulated with more activity than it is ready for. Your nervous system feels overwhelmed, and hyperactivity symptoms like shaking and tremors as a result.

Other withdrawal symptoms are night sweats. This is because the alcohol is being broken down through sweating in your body. Only 10 per cent of the alcohol in your body goes out through your urine.

The rest will be broken down through metabolism working throughout your body. Therefore, after stopping drinking, your body will try and push and sweat all the alcohol out of the body.

Acute Alcohol Withdrawal during an alcohol detox

psychological withdrawals

Acute Alcohol Withdrawal refers to the common physical symptoms those recovering from alcohol use disorder experience in the first few weeks after abstaining from alcohol. While some symptoms cause discomfort, others can have serious consequences.

The symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety
  • Shakiness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting and dehydration
  • Muscle tremors
  • Agitation
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Fever
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations in severe cases

Are home-based alcohol detoxes safe?

NICE Guidelines advise that a home-based detox is only recommendable if you are drinking less than 30 units of alcohol per day. This equates to a one-litre bottle of vodka.

If you are drinking more than this amount, then you will be advised to undergo detox at a residential rehab clinic. It’s also possible to taper the amount you drink per day to below 30 units, and then you will be able to undertake a home detox.

If you drink more than 30 units of alcohol per day, then the risks of suffering from life-threatening withdrawal symptoms is more of a risk. For instance, delirium tremens. This is a serious condition, and the symptoms are all of the above, but much worse.

You could possibly die if you decide to suddenly withdraw from alcohol, due to seizure or cardiac arrest. We advise you to find a rehabilitation clinic and do this under the supervision of health professionals, particularly where you are drinking more than 30 units of alcohol per day.

Eventually, withdrawal symptoms worsen with alcohol abuse and detoxification will require an intervention. In cases where symptoms are already advanced, not seeking medical attention can lead to serious complications and even be fatal.

Recovery, once the detoxification period is complete, should not be handled alone. According to a study conducted by the National Library of Medicine, those in recovery who tried to recover on their own displayed unhealthy coping mechanisms that meant they were less likely to reach three years of being sober.

These people were more prone to relapse within 16 years, more so than those recovering from alcohol use disorder who enlisted in outpatient therapy, 12-step programmes, or other counselling.

For more information on inpatient facilities to treat alcoholism, head over to our private rehab clinics page where you will find all you need to know about registering.

How long will it take for me to withdraw from alcohol?

The timeline can differ per person. There are many people who could take a while before they feel normal again. Some people will only have symptoms for a few days. This varies per person, but those suffering from alcohol use disorder may experience the below:

Stage 1: The mild period of alcohol detox, after 8 hours of not drinking

One might suffer from mild symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, foggy thinking, abdominal pain, vomiting, no appetite, nausea, fatigue,  depression, tremors,  heart palpitations, and mood swings.

Stage 2: The moderate period of alcohol detox, after 24 hours of not drinking

Most withdrawal symptoms will be; increase in blood pressure, an increase in body temperature/ respiration, an irregular heart rate, cognitive confusion, irritability, sweating, and disturbing moods.

Stage 3: Severe delirium tremens during alcohol detox, after 72 hours of not drinking

Hallucinations, seizures, fever,  agitation, and confusion.

After 3-5 days, most of the alcohol withdrawal symptoms should be gone. If you would like to read more information on how to get help for alcohol detox and rehab, visit our homepage.

Alternatively, you can make an appointment with your GP, who can help you find a free clinic if you cannot afford one.

What is PAWS?

PAWS refers to Post-Acute Withdrawal Symptoms. Typically, alcohol withdrawal symptoms subside after the first two weeks of abstinence. However, some patients suffer from PAWS for the first year of their recovery.

During this time, Post-Acute Withdrawal patients may experience symptoms like mood swings, lack of energy and motivation, memory issues, balance problems, delayed reflexes, regular nausea and depression. Symptoms typically come in waves, lasting days at a time.

Extended treatment is especially important for patients experiencing PAWS because they are more likely to relapse during the first year as symptoms seem never-ending. However, if patients continue to abstain, symptoms typically reduce and disappear over time.

alcohol withdrawal

How is alcohol withdrawal diagnosed?

When diagnosing alcohol withdrawal, doctors start by observing a patient’s appearance and asking questions about their medical history and alcohol consumption.

A toxicology screening with blood and urine tests is also common to determine the amount of alcohol in a patient’s system. After conducting basic tests, doctors often consult the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol (CIWA) to determine a patient’s score and thus the severity of their withdrawal symptoms.

Your doctor may check for physical symptoms of withdrawal like an irregular heartbeat or dehydration and you may receive a toxicology screen to diagnose the amount of alcohol in your body.

The CIWA measures ten key symptoms are:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Hearing issues
  • Mental clarity
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Uncontrollable sweating
  • Problems with sense of touch
  • Body tremors
  • Visual hallucinations

Understanding the CIWA for alcohol detox

The Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol questions patients about various symptoms including nausea and vomiting, tremors, paroxysmal sweats, anxiety, tactile disturbances, auditory disturbances, visual disturbances, headache and fullness in head, agitation and orientation or clouding of sensorium.

Each category has up to seven options available to describe the symptom prevalence and severity.

A score of 67 is considered the most severe case of alcohol withdrawal, while a score over 20 is considered a severe case where Delirium Tremens becomes possible.

Scores from 16 to 20 are considered moderate level symptoms and scores from 10 to 15 constitute mild symptoms. The test explains scores under 10 typically do not need medications to assist with recovery. [3]

What happens to your brain during alcohol detox?

If you have suffered from alcohol use disorder for years, it will take time to see results. The frontal lobe begins to repair itself, and this takes time.

Next, dopamine receptors in your brain will return to normal and no longer fire when you consume alcohol. This makes room for new enjoyable activities in your life, increasing your motivation to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Eliminating alcohol will normalise serotonin production as well. Serotonin is the chemical responsible for feelings of happiness. Finally, you will learn to adopt new skills and habits in lieu of alcoholism. You can find time to take up new hobbies, gain more knowledge for work, and meet new people.

Treatments for alcohol withdrawal during an alcohol detox

Patients experiencing minor to moderate alcohol withdrawal symptoms can typically manage symptoms by rehydrating and avoiding high sensory outputs like loud sounds and bright lights. They may also benefit from a sedative prescription to better handle this stressful period.

Patients suffering from strong to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms should consider further treatment options to ensure a safe and lasting recovery.

These include undergoing a residential treatment programme, working with a specialist to develop a medication-assisted therapy strategy, seeking additional outpatient centres and counselling programmes and possibly moving to a sober living community.

Below we have listed the five most common and efficient treatments for alcohol withdrawal and detox:

  1. Residential treatment: In-patient residential treatment is best for long-term heavy drinkers who need medical supervision during the detoxification process and the following weeks. Residential treatment programs are best for struggling recovering addicts because they keep patients safe and away from alcohol, monitoring their needs and progress 24 hours a day. In addition to helping alcoholics recover and return to physical health. these programs typically have licensed therapists on hand to help patients sort out the mental aspects of addiction. Residential treatment programs usually last for 30, 60 or 90 days to jumpstart a patient’s recovery
  2. Medication-assisted therapy: Medication-assisted therapy is often used in conjunction with hospitalized or residential treatment. Doctors treating alcohol withdrawal patients may prescribe sedatives, pain medications or other pills to avoid distracting symptoms and further complications like seizures
  3. Outpatient treatment and counselling: Following a 30, 60 or 90 day program, recovering alcoholics are vulnerable in their new state of sobriety. Outpatient treatment centres are intended to keep former alcoholics on the path of recovery. These facilities typically offer additional educational resources and individual. group or family counselling services to help patients cope with recovery without relapse
  4. Alcoholics Anonymous: In addition to the counselling programs offered through outpatient treatment centres, Alcoholics Anonymous offers weekly meetings to bring recovering and recovered alcoholics together with a sense of community and sober contacts. AA follows a 12-step program that emphasizes a person’s desire to quit drinking, self-forgiveness and making amends with people harmed by their bad drinking habits
  5. Sober living: Sober living offers recovering alcoholics a sober community to go home to if they are serious about a life change. These communities rely on the notion that peer support is invaluable, with recovering addicts possessing the unique capability to understand each other’s compulsions. With encouraged meeting attendance and peer support, sober living helps former alcoholics stay on course and foster healthier friendships and lifestyles

What can I expect from a drug and alcohol detox clinic?

Each of our rehab facilities follows the same high standard of care when it comes to treating alcoholism. We offer all-round packages to combat every aspect of your recovery and needs. These include:

1. Help to tackle the psychological components of addiction

Whilst alcohol detox is about purging alcohol from the body, rehabilitation addresses complex psychological and emotional issues giving rise to addiction.

Psychological problems include post-traumatic stress disorder, various anxieties, depression and often latent psychological trauma experienced in childhood. Whilst physical detox may only take 5 to 7 days to complete, psychological recovery lasts for an entire lifetime.

2. Fully tailored alcohol detox

Before alcohol detox is attempted, a ‘substance abuse’ profile and history are drawn up by our admissions team. We may require, with your consent, access to medical records and any other relevant documentation. This may include documents concerning previous attempts at engaging residential or outpatient rehabilitation.

Our alcohol detox programme is open to anyone over the age of 16. All we ask is for your complete commitment to getting and staying sober. If you are not committed to this process your personalised rehabilitation programme is unlikely to succeed and your investment in the process may result in nothing.

3. 24-hour medical observation

When you enter our detox programme you are under 24-hour a day observation by our team of medical experts. You receive support and attention required to make a full recovery.

Rehabilitation centres we refer you to maintain an on-site pharmacy so medications are available on a prescribed basis. Such drugs are capable of fighting off severe withdrawal symptoms such as delirium tremens, seizures, nausea and hallucinations common during alcohol detox.
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4. Backed up with proven therapies

Following detox, a number of therapies are provided, such as; group therapy, individual therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Our commitment to providing effective therapies after detox means you leave the centre with much-needed coping strategies to fight off relapse.

Once treatment is complete, our staff put in place a structured relapse prevention plan including outpatient and community support.

This plan typically includes the involvement of your local Alcoholics Anonymous group or SMART Recovery.

5. Healthy nutritious meals

Throughout the detox and rehabilitation process, you will receive meals rich in vitamins and minerals. The food we provide is high in nutrients as this is believed to aid the detox process.

Our detox programme takes place in tranquil settings conducive to relaxation and learning. This means you are in an optimal emotional and psychological state which in turn will help you face the darker side of withdrawal symptoms from a position of strength rather than weakness.

6. Fighting fear during recovery

While alcohol withdrawal is serious, it is not something to be afraid of. Learning about alcohol’s harmful effects, choosing to undergo treatment and finding a supportive network allows patients to recover with the resources they need.

In addition to the resources and treatment options above, those recovering from alcohol use disorder should also seek healthier lifestyle choices like a nutritious diet and exercise plan including stress-relieving activities like yoga. In addition to restoring self-connection, these healthier habits can bring those recovering from alcohol abuse disorder a sense of happiness and purpose.

You are not alone in this process and while rehab and detox can appear intimidating or unattainable, it is important to remember that you will be surrounded by a supportive and empathic community, whichever treatment plan you choose.

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This article was reviewed by Boris MacKay. Boris is our editor-in-chief at Rehab 4 Addiction. He also covers a variety of topics relating to addiction and recovery. Boris is an addiction therapist and assists in the alcohol detox process.