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The Good Bad and Ugly of Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

Giving up alcohol is not easy to do for the alcohol abuser or alcoholic. Part of the challenge is making it through the alcohol withdrawal symptoms without reaching for another drink to make yourself feel better. Those who buckle under the pressure find themselves worse off because they tend to repeat the cycle of attempting to quit, succumbing to withdrawal symptoms, and then drinking even more to make themselves feel better.

In this guide, we will discuss the good, bad, and ugly sides of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The most important thing for you to understand is that withdrawal symptoms are neither random nor something to be ignored. They occur for a very specific reason. Furthermore, how they occur – and the severity to which someone in withdrawal experiences them – are very instructive about the process of alcohol dependence and recovery.

As you read the information below, you may have questions about the effects of alcohol on the body and mind. We welcome your call on our 24-hour helpline. One of our counsellors will answer your questions as well as provide you with information about treatments for alcohol abuse and dependence. We can even refer you to a rehab clinic if you need help with a drinking problem.

The Good Side of Withdrawal Symptoms

It is understandably difficult for the person giving up alcohol to see the good side of withdrawal symptoms. But a good side does exist. To understand it, we must first discuss why withdrawal symptoms occur. It will boil down to the effects that persistent drinking has on the mind and body.

The human body does a remarkable job of filtering out substances that are unhealthy. This includes alcohol. However, the organ responsible for this function (the liver) has a limited capacity for handling alcohol. What it cannot process passes through the body via the bloodstream. Persistent alcohol consumption in excess amounts damages the liver over time, resulting in more and more alcohol being allowed to roam freely through the body.

Alcohol also affects the brain. Chemicals in alcohol produce pleasurable feelings by encouraging the brain to produce certain neurotransmitters that allow us to sense pleasure. The problem is that the brain can get used to a certain level of alcohol in the system to a degree that it does not produce enough neurotransmitters to create pleasurable feelings. The drinker must then consume more alcohol to once again feel that pleasure.

Lastly, the cardiovascular, nervous and other systems in the body have to work harder to overcome the natural sedating effects of alcohol. The brain produces chemicals that provide extra energy to these systems in order to prevent them from shutting down. The extra energy come into play during withdrawal.

With all of that said, withdrawal symptoms begin to occur as the level of alcohol in the system drops. Heart rate might increase due to the extra energy the heart is used to expending to overcome alcohol. An individual may develop shakes, feelings of nervousness and anxiety, insomnia, and other symptoms – all from that extra energy. What is the good side here?

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The good side of withdrawal symptoms is that they prove your body is reacting the way it is supposed to when you come off alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms are evidence that your body is gradually cleansing itself of the toxins within and simultaneously adjusting to return to normal function. So as uncomfortable as withdrawal symptoms are, the fact that they are present during withdrawal is a good sign.

The Bad Side of Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms have a pretty obvious bad side: they can be rather uncomfortable. In fact, the symptoms can be so uncomfortable that the person trying to give up alcohol can be driven right back to drinking in order to alleviate the discomfort. It stands to reason that an inability to cope with the symptoms is the number one thing that prevents people from overcoming alcohol abuse.

The most common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are:

  • excessive sweating
  • mild tremors – aka the 'shakes'
  • nausea, vomiting, headache
  • mild to severe insomnia
  • feelings of anxiety and nervousness
  • mild to severe cravings.

There is a rather serious condition related to alcohol withdrawal known as delirium tremens. We will address this condition in the next section. Suffice to say that the withdrawal symptoms listed above can be enough to make giving up drinking rather unpleasant. The good news is that medically supervised detox at a private rehab clinic may include prescription medications capable of making withdrawal symptoms easier to bear.

Withdrawal symptoms usually begin within 2 to 3 hours after having taken the last drink. Some people do not begin experiencing them for up to eight hours. They tend to peak somewhere around the 48-hour mark, and then gradually subside over 7 to 10 days. In rare cases, some of the symptoms can persist for several weeks.

The Ugly Side of Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

When the withdrawal symptoms listed above are mild, management of those symptoms until they subside is the goal during detox. However, severe withdrawal symptoms can lead to delirium tremens. Delirium tremens is a serious condition caused by the body overreacting to the withdrawal process. It can result in serious injury and even death. This is the ugly side of alcohol withdrawal.

Delirium tremens is known to cause auditory, visual and tactile hallucinations that can lead a person to do very dangerous things. It can cause seizures that may result in serious trauma should a person fall as a result. Lastly, delirium tremens can cause a spike in heart rate and blood pressure that can lead to fatal cardiac arrest.

As you can see, delirium tremens is not something to take lightly. You need to know that roughly 5% of all alcoholics undergoing detox will develop this condition. Of them, approximately 30% will either die or suffer serious injuries. This is why we constantly say that detox is a medical emergency that should not be undertaken without the medical supervision of a trained doctor or nurse.

Going on to Complete Recovery

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms have their good, bad, and ugly sides. Allow us to leave you with something good that we did not mention previously: if you make it through the withdrawal symptoms to complete detox, you will be well on your way to complete recovery. You will discover that the relatively short duration of withdrawal symptoms was nothing compared to the pleasure you will experience in your new life without alcohol.

If you would like more information about alcohol withdrawal and detox, our counsellors are standing by to speak with you. As an independent referral service, our primary goal is to help those suffering from alcohol problems find the relief they need. That starts with helping them understand the severity of their alcohol problems so that they can choose a treatment option. We want to provide you with that same kind of assistance.

Please note that all of our services are free and confidential. We work with alcohol rehab clinics across the country to provide rehab services to those in need.

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