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Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Alcohol addiction is an epidemic affecting societies across various age groups. This article looks at alcohol withdrawal syndrome and its dangers.

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS)?

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) refers to a group of symptoms that occur after the reduction or complete cessation of alcohol intake after a period of prolonged, consistent use. These signs of alcohol withdrawal usually appear six hours after the last drink, peak between 24 and 72 hours, and subside within seven days.1

Despite this relatively “short” alcohol withdrawal timeline, however, you should know that some of these signs of alcohol withdrawal can be very dangerous, and they pose a serious risk to the health and wellbeing of individuals; particularly those dealing with alcohol withdrawal after a significantly prolonged period of use.

Statistics on AWS

Alcohol is one of the most common substances of abuse used in societies all over the world. According to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in 2019, over 14.5 million people, ages 12 and above, were reported to have Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the United States alone. This statistic points out just how much of an “epidemic” alcohol abuse is.2

Perhaps more “disturbing” is that many people seem unaware that alcohol use, like opiate use, is accompanied by severe withdrawal effects upon any attempt to stop drinking or withdraw from alcohol.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome vs. Hangover

People often mistake alcohol withdrawal syndrome for a hangover. However, beyond the major similarity of both being linked with alcohol use, they are very different as they have different causes. These differences will be detailed below.

Alcohol Hangover 

Alcohol hangover occurs when an individual consumes an excessive amount of alcohol at once (or in the space of a brief period). This results in a high level of alcohol content in the body, causing irritation of the stomach lining, inflammatory responses, and dehydration.

Once the effects of the alcohol use wear off, these symptoms become more pronounced, resulting in noticeable hangover signs like headache, fatigue, and nausea (usually accompanied by vomiting.3

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (or drinking withdrawal), on the other hand, occurs when there is acute alcohol withdrawal from people who have been consuming high levels of alcohol for some time. Over time, the body will have become accustomed to having a certain alcohol content, and this presence of alcohol alters brain function and neurotransmitter production.

When there is acute alcohol withdrawal, the body struggles to adapt and function properly, leading to symptoms ranging from mild ones like alcohol withdrawal fever or dizziness caused by alcohol withdrawal to much more severe symptoms like alcohol withdrawal seizure.3

How Is Alcohol Withdrawal Diagnosed?

The process of withdrawing from alcohol starts with a medical diagnosis by a doctor. Your doctor will review your medical history, enquire about what symptoms you’re experiencing, and then perform a physical examination. 

During the diagnosis process, your doctor will be looking for signs that accompany withdrawing from alcohol, such as irregular heartbeats, hand tremors, fever, and dehydration. Doctors will ask a series of questions such as “what day is this?” Or “who am I” that helps determine the severity of your symptoms. Your doctor will also perform a toxicology screen to determine the amount of alcohol you still have in your body. This knowledge will help your doctor develop a treatment regimen that will ensure you can withdraw from alcohol safely.

Can Alcohol Withdrawal Be Fatal?

Alcohol Withdrawal occurs in stages, and each of these stages is accompanied by withdrawal symptoms of varying severities. Early alcohol withdrawal stages may accompany relatively mild symptoms such as headaches, fever, increased sweating, etc. 

Layer alcohol withdrawal stages are accompanied by much more severe withdrawal symptoms such as hallucinations, seizures (status epilepticus), and delirium tremens, all of which can be fatal if alcohol withdrawal syndrome treatments are absent or not quickly initiated.

Some Factors Affecting the Severity of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal usually varies across the board as several factors can contribute to the severity of the withdrawal symptoms. Some of these factors include: 


  • Alcohol dependence
  • How long the person has been abusing alcohol: The side effects of alcohol withdrawal observed in the alcohol withdrawal timeline of “chronic” alcohol users tend to be more severe.
  • The quantity of alcohol they consume
  • How frequently they drink
  • Their age
  • Their history with addiction to other substances
  • Family addiction history
  • Pre-existing mental and physical health conditions

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

Proper management of alcohol detox requires the ability and knowledge of how to identify withdrawal symptoms from alcohol. These common alcohol withdrawal symptoms serve as early signs of alcohol withdrawal and being able to identify them could help you seek appropriate help for yourself or your loved ones. 

Common Indications of Alcohol Withdrawal

Common withdrawal symptoms from alcohol include the following:

  • Alcohol Withdrawal Nausea
  • Alcohol Withdrawal Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Fast heasrt rate
  • Agitation
  • Alcohol Withdrawal Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Nightmares
  • Alcohol Withdrawal Anxiety
  • Chills from alcohol withdrawal

Severe Alcohol Recovery Symptoms

In addition to these mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms, you should know that there are also alcohol recovery symptoms that are much more severe. These symptoms could include insomnia, confusion, high blood pressure, and Delirium Tremens, one of the most severe physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.4

It is vital that if you or a loved one experiences alcohol recovery symptoms, you seek medical intervention immediately.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

Alcohol is a Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant which means it “depresses” the activities of the CNS by slowing down brain function and changing the way and speed by which nerves send and receive impulses or “messages.” Over time the body’s central nervous system adapts to the effects of having alcohol around and develops alternative “measures” of nerve communication (rewiring of the brain). 

A sudden decrease of alcohol levels in the body results in a “disorganization” of brain functions as the brain has already grown accustomed to the presence of and functioning with alcohol in the body, which leads to an alcohol withdrawal syndrome and the manifestation of the side effects of alcohol withdrawal.5

Who Is At Risk For Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

From the pathophysiology of alcohol withdrawal syndrome described above, it is evident that one of the major alcohol withdrawal risk factors is chronic or prolonged alcohol consumption. People who consume large amounts of alcohol and cannot withdraw from alcohol have a serious risk of developing alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Also, if you have at some point needed alcohol detox but have resumed drinking, you are at risk of developing AWS. You should know that although alcohol withdrawal syndrome is more common in adults, it can also occur in children since it develops with prolonged and consistent alcohol abuse.

Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome treatments can be done in many ways depending on the treatment center and patient preference. Overall, however, treatment for alcohol withdrawal syndrome usually involves the following:

Inpatient Treatment and Outpatient Treatment

Patients will have to determine which they prefer, or which option is more agreeable to them between inpatient and outpatient treatment. Under inpatient care, patients must check in to a treatment facility where they’ll have access to intensive treatment and care. The outpatient is more flexible and is usually preferred by patients who prefer to stick to their daily routine while receiving treatment for alcohol withdrawal.

Medication-Assisted Therapy

Medication-Assisted Therapy involves using alcohol withdrawal syndrome medication to manage withdrawal symptoms accompanying alcohol withdrawal.

Individual Counseling

Alcohol withdrawal treatment supportive therapy plays an important role in the successful treatment of withdrawal as well as alcohol addiction itself. It is usually used in combination with alcohol withdrawal syndrome medication.

Support Groups

Many people experiencing symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome will likely recover with appropriate treatment. However, it is recommended that individuals with AWS seek medical attention because withdrawal symptoms can be very severe and tend to get much worse before they get better.6

Preventing Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

The best way to prevent alcohol withdrawal syndrome is to avoid or moderately reduce drinking “levels” or frequency. Officially, moderate drinking is regarded as one drink at most per day for women and nothing more than two drinks per day for men.7

Get Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome at San Diego Detox

Need effective treatment and management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome? Find help for alcohol withdrawal today at San Diego Detox. We have teams of licensed professionals experienced in delivering the quality, individualized care you need to enjoy safe alcohol withdrawal. Reach out today, and begin your sobriety and wellness journey.