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What Happens When You Stop Drinking – The Physical Effects

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

What happens when you stop drinking? It is a question that a lot of people ask prior to entering treatment for alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Given that alcohol is an extremely addictive drug, the question is a reasonable one you should ask in preparation for giving up drinking. If your level of addiction is severe enough, stopping drinking could create some very unpleasant side effects that could result in a medical emergency. Please seek professional help to give up alcohol safely.

The physical effects of persistent drinking are evident in both the body and mind. Therefore, withdrawing from alcohol affects both as well. Your body will undergo some very noticeable withdrawal symptoms while your mind fights against cravings and psychological dependence. The good news is that most people can completely withdraw from alcohol within 7 to 10 days. Your case will depend on the severity of your dependence and how well your body adjusts to not having alcohol in the system.

When Detox Is Necessary

Every alcohol treatment is different because every person is different. You may or may not need detox depending on how severely your body and mind are dependent on alcohol. Assuming you do need detox, it typically takes place in a hospital or private clinic. If your dependence is mild enough, you may be eligible to undergo detox at home with the assistance of prescription medications and a nurse practitioner.

We recommend detox at a private rehab clinic for clients who are classified as alcohol dependent. We believe private rehab clinics are the best choice because detox is medically supervised and the professionals who provide care are not distracted by anything else. Drug and alcohol recovery is all they do – and they do it very well.

If detox is not necessary in your case, you should have an easier time giving up drinking. However, that does not mean your endeavour to stop will be free from any side effects. It may not be. You may still experience some of the withdrawal symptoms listed below.

When You Stop Drinking – Withdrawal Symptoms

Most problem drinkers who decide to stop will begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms within eight hours of having their last drink. Some people can start exhibiting symptoms even more quickly – as soon as 3 to 4 hours. Withdrawal symptoms are the result of the body and mind being dependent on alcohol and suddenly not having enough to satisfy expectations. The body must then learn to function without the alcohol it has become accustomed to.

The most common withdrawal symptoms are as follows:

  • Nausea, and generally feeling sick
  • Excessive sweating
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Minor tremors (aka 'the shakes')
  • Minor convulsions
  • Feelings of restlessness and anxiety
  • Alcohol cravings.

As you may already know, one of the things that keep problem drinkers trapped in the cycle of drinking is the avoidance of withdrawal symptoms. For example, you might already be physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol. Between periods of drinking you generally feel ill, so you turn to alcohol to help you feel better. Those ill feelings are actually withdrawal symptoms. So when you drink to feel better, you are making your drinking problem worse even though the withdrawal symptoms go away.

If there is any good news related to alcohol withdrawal, it is the fact that most people notice withdrawal symptoms beginning to fade within 48 to 72 hours.

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Severe Side Effects and Complications

Withdrawing from alcohol should only be done under the supervision of a medical professional at a hospital, clinic, or at home (in the case of an approved home detox programme). Please understand that detox is considered a medical emergency due to some of the complications that could result. If you were to develop any of these complications without access to medical care, you could die from withdrawal.

About one in every 20 alcoholics undergoing withdrawal will experience a condition known as delirium tremens. This is a very severe reaction to alcohol withdrawal that is potentially life threatening. A person suffering from delirium tremens will exhibit the following:

  • Severe Convulsions – In someone experiencing delirium tremens, the minor convulsions of alcohol withdrawal become major almost to the point of being similar to epileptic seizures. Such convulsions can easily result in bodily injury due to falls, striking furniture, etc.
  • Rapid Heart Rate – The rapid heart rate associated with delirium tremens is a concern because it can lead to cardiac arrest. High body temperature often accompanies rapid heart rate.
  • Dehydration – Significant dehydration is a common complication with delirium tremens because the convulsions can make it difficult to maintain proper fluid levels. Dehydration is a dangerous condition in any case, not just during alcohol withdrawal.
  • Delirium – People suffering from delirium tremens frequently hallucinate. They will hear things that do not exist; they will see things that are not real. The auditory, visual and tactile hallucinations can lead an individual to do some very strange things that are potentially unsafe.

Study suggests that as many as 35% of alcoholics suffering from delirium tremens without medical assistance die as a result of the condition. This is why we continually remind people that alcohol withdrawal is a medical emergency that requires prompt and proper care. Needless to say that alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to withdrawal from. It is more dangerous than heroin and cocaine.

What happens when you stop drinking? Your body must instantly find a way to cope with not having the alcohol it has been accustomed to for so long. As your body tries to compensate, all of the symptoms and side effects mentioned earlier begin to occur. Some people will exhibit all of them while others may only exhibit a few. In either case, overcoming alcohol abuse is rarely easy.

If you believe you have a drinking problem, we urge you to contact us by way of our 24-hour helpline. We can help walk you through your symptoms to determine how severe your problem is. We can then refer you to an appropriate treatment in your local area via a private clinic, a counsellor, the NHS, or an alcohol charity.

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