Most of us have been in a situation where we got together with a friend after work and they said “What a day, I need a drink!”, but we didn’t think anything of it. The phrase I need a drink is, in fact, used so often that it has become another way of saying we’re tired or annoyed, but relying on alcohol to have fun or cope with daily stress is a major problem that shouldn’t be ignored.
Like many other addictive substances, alcohol triggers a whole range of physical and psychological reactions when it is no longer consumed. In the case of occasional or social drinking, they are very mild and often go unnoticed, but in the more serious cases, alcohol withdrawal symptoms are so debilitating that they affect daily life and force the person to start drinking again.
Recognizing alcohol withdrawal symptoms is key in treating addiction and preventing relapse, but symptoms are not always obvious. If you notice a combination of the following changes in the health state and behaviour of someone you know, they could be struggling with addiction.
The changes in mental state caused by alcohol withdrawal are the easiest to ignore, because they can be confused with symptoms of other health conditions or even attributed to stress or fatigue:
- Confusion, inability to focus on a task
- A state of nervousness and jumpiness
- Insomnia coupled with nightmares
One way of differentiating alcohol addiction from the other possible causes is that all of these symptoms usually appear together. Also, if they seem to get better or go away completely as soon as your friend drank some alcohol, it might be because they are in withdrawal.
Linking these behavioural changes to withdrawal is difficult if you don’t know the person very well – which is why so many people are surprised to discover that their co-workers or acquaintances are heavy drinkers – but if the drinker is a relative or close friend, the connection becomes more obvious.
In medical terms, alcohol is a depressant. This means that regular alcohol intake slows down brain function and affects the way in which nerves send messages. As the central nervous system adjusts to having a depressive agent around all the time, it stays in a hyperactive state and when alcohol intake stops, the following alcohol withdrawal symptoms appear:
- Dilated pupils
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Fast heart rate
In the case of extreme withdrawal, symptoms may even include fever, hallucinations and seizures. However, these only account for about 5% of all withdrawal cases.
If a friend or loved one is experiencing these symptoms as a result of alcohol withdrawal, you can help with short term measures such as taking them to a quiet and safe place with soft lighting. Make sure you limit their access to alcohol – since they are vulnerable at that time, seeing a bottle of wine in the kitchen will not help. In general, being calm, supportive and positive will help your loved one cope more easily with the symptoms.
However, if symptoms have been going on for a long time and their life is visibly affected by this, you can discuss the option of inpatient treatment. Only a certified professional is able to determine the severity of the situation and the best course of action your loved one needs to follow.
When do alcohol withdrawal symptoms appear and how long do they last?
Because alcohol withdrawal symptoms depend on a variety of factors, no two people will experience them in the same way. For some, withdrawal symptoms are easy to overcome and they move on to an addiction-free life, while for others, they are so difficult to bear than they have no option but to resort to drinking again. Severity depends on factors such as:
- Physical factors: weight, height and age
- Family history of alcoholism
- Existing mental health issues or disorders such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders or bipolar disorder
- For how long the person has been drinking and how much alcohol they typically consume. A person who has been drinking every day for decades may experience more severe symptoms compared to a college student who only drinks heavily at the weekends.
- Personal events going on in your loved one’s life. The loss of a family member, a breakup, money problems or workplace stress can aggravate withdrawal symptoms.
- The use of other substances in addition to alcohol
Depending on the case, the symptoms can appear as soon as several hours after drinking the last glass or appear later, after 48 to 72 hours. In milder cases, the symptoms are bearable and tend to get better after 5-7 days, but heavy drinkers may experience them for longer. Psychological side effects in particular will go on for several weeks after the to the physical ones are no longer present.
One thing is certain: someone who has never struggled with addiction cannot understand what someone feels when experiencing withdrawal symptoms. As difficult as this might be, try not to judge them for how they are coping with the symptoms and under no circumstances should you call them weak. The very fact that they are having these symptoms means that they’re trying to quit and this deserves your full support.