Alcohol Abuse | Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

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What is alcohol withdrawal syndrome?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a set of symptoms that people who have had an alcohol abuse problem for weeks, months or years may experience when they stop drinking. People who only drink once in a while rarely have withdrawal symptoms.

People who have gone through withdrawal before are more likely to have withdrawal symptoms each time they quit drinking.

What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome?

Symptoms can be mild or severe, and may include:

  • Shakiness
  • Sweats
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Decreased appetite

More severe withdrawal symptoms may also include fever, convulsions and delirium tremens (also called DTs). People who have DTs may experience confusion, anxiety and even hallucinations (seeing, hearing or feeling things that aren't really there). DTs can be very serious if they are not treated by a doctor.

Do people going through withdrawal need to see a doctor?

Yes. Your doctor needs to know you're going through withdrawal so he or she can make sure it doesn't lead to more serious health problems. If you go through withdrawal a number of times without getting the right treatment, your symptoms may get worse each time. So even if your withdrawal symptoms don't seem that bad, it's important to see your doctor. This is especially true for people who have had bad withdrawal symptoms before and people who have other health problems, such as infections, heart disease, lung disease or a history of seizures.

People who quit using other drugs (such as tobacco, injected drugs or cocaine) at the same time they stop drinking alcohol might have severe withdrawal problems. They should see a doctor before they quit.

How can my doctor help me if I’m in withdrawal?

Your doctor can provide the support you need to succeed in your efforts to quit drinking. He or she can keep track of your withdrawal symptoms to help prevent more serious health problems.

Your doctor can also prescribe medicines to control the shakiness, anxiety and confusion that can come with alcohol withdrawal. If you take these medicines at an early stage of the withdrawal, they may keep your symptoms from getting worse.

What can my family and friends do to help me if I’m going through withdrawal?

The urge to drink again during withdrawal can be very strong. Support from family and friends can help you resist that urge. After withdrawal symptoms go away, it's important to join a treatment or sobriety program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (see contact information under "Other Organizations"). These programs can provide the support you need to avoid relapse.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff.

American Academy of Family Physicians

Reviewed/Updated: 02/14
Created: 09/00

Learn More About Alcohol Abuse Treatment

Taking Medicines Safely after Alcohol or Drug Abuse Recovery

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