Alcohol withdrawal symptoms?

Originally Published: May 6, 2005 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 22, 2013
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Dear Alice,

I've been a very heavy drinker for a number of years and it has started to impact my job and family relationships. Recently I've been trying to quit or moderate my drinking and that has been met with little success. I will go a few days without drinking and then the uncontrollable urge overcomes me and I end up at the bar promising to have only one to two (which then end up being my normal ten or eleven).

Every time now that I cut back on my alcohol intake, I get very serious withdrawal symptoms, such as twitches, shakes, night sweats, nervousness, and anxiousness. It is getting to be so bad that I feel worse than if I was suffering a hangover. I'm wondering how long will these symptoms continue?

A few weeks ago, I went about ten days without drinking and thought I was over the symptoms, but I regressed and started drinking heavily again. Now, it has been four days since my last drink and I can barely concentrate at work because of the twitching and nervousness. I don't go to doctors and think that I can work myself through this on my own. I'm just wondering how long this will last and if there is anything that I can do that would make this process easier. Thank you!

Dear Reader,

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may last anywhere from twenty-four hours to weeks, based upon how dependent a person has become. The symptoms that you describe are similar to those people experience during alcohol withdrawal:

  • Shaking
  • Twitching
  • Night sweats
  • Nervousness
  • Anxiousness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased blood pressure or heart rate
  • A strong desire to drink to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal
  • Seizures

As dependency worsens, some people develop a life-threatening condition called Delirium Tremens (DT). If you're having or develop any of these symptoms below, please treat this situation as a medical emergency and see a health care provider immediately:

  • Hallucinations
  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Memory loss
  • Fever
  • Extremely high heart rate and blood pressure

Based on what you've said, it sounds as though you've had limited success trying to stop drinking. You mention that you don't go to doctors and would like to work through this on your own. Has this strategy worked for you? What is it about seeing a health care provider that is unappealing to you? What would it be like for you to talk to a professional who may provide some support and help? It's understandable that talking to someone about your alcohol use may feel uncomfortable or overwhelming. Several options exist and knowing what to expect may make it easier for you to reach out for help. Recovering from strong conditions usually require both internal (your willpower) and external (outside help, other people, services) forces. Perhaps you may consider enlisting external support to really increase the odds towards your success.

If you choose to see a healthcare provider, s/he may ask about your medical history, your alcohol consumption, and your symptoms, especially as they relate to going cold turkey. Your honesty will help the provider take the best possible care of you. S/he may refer you to a substance abuse counselor or program to determine why and when your drinking became excessive and uncontrollable to develop a plan to combat your dependency.

A myriad of services and resources are available to you. Your job may offer a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that aids its employees in finding the correct substance abuse services to fight their dependencies or addictions. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is another option to consider. If you wish, you may even go to a meeting in a different part of town so that you don't encounter any family, friends, or work associates along the way. Al-Anon/Alateen is a similar program, but is geared towards your family and friends.

Even though you want to stop drinking without any help, recovery from alcohol use is difficult and time-consuming — if not all-consuming — so taking advantage of resources and support available to you may significantly help with the day-by-day. Please check out these links for additional information on alcohol dependence and recovery:

Consider taking this next step in addressing this problem with alcohol so that it will no longer harm you, your loved ones, and your employment. You may take this step of inquiring about help. These are brave moves and a good start to finding the support you need and deserve.

Alice