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Is Alcohol Withdrawal Deadly?

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, about 141 thousand Americans die from alcohol effects in an average year. Additionally, 385 Americans die every day from alcohol causes, 10% of deaths occur between the age of 15 and 49, and men are three times more likely to die from alcohol abuse than women.


If you are wondering, is alcohol withdrawal deadly? It is, especially if you have been a heavy drinker or have drunk alcohol for a long time. Alcohol damages vital organs like the liver, pancreas, heart, brain, and more, while increasing your chances of developing deadly diseases like cancers of the throat, bowel, mouth, etc.


In this article, we review what alcohol withdrawal is, the symptoms of withdrawal, and managing the withdrawal symptoms. Let’s dig in.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

When you use alcohol excessively and abruptly stop or reduce the amount you take, you develop side effects from the withdrawal. These symptoms may include anxiety, trembling, insomnia, and other mental and physical side effects. This is because alcohol falls under depressants that affect the central nervous system and sedate your brain.


Exposing yourself to long-term alcohol use changes your brain structure to cater to the impacts of alcohol. Your brain does so by producing abnormally high levels of norepinephrine or serotonin. When you suddenly cut off this supply, your brain behaves like an accelerated car whose brakes are cut off, producing mild to severe side effects.

Vital signs like blood pressure and heart rate may change drastically and create stroke risks, heart attack, or death. However, 1 in 20 people experience the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal, called delirium tremens (DTs). In a DTs state, your brain fails to readjust without alcohol, creating temporary confusion and dangerous changes in your breathing and blood circulation.

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Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Medically Reviewed:


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Expert Contributor

Dr. Williams presently serves on the board of Directors for two non-profit service organizations. He holds a Master’s degree in Human Services from Lincoln University, Philadelphia, Pa, and a Ph.D. with a concentration in Clinical Psychology from Union Institute and University. In Cincinnati, Ohio. He is licensed to practice addictions counseling in both New Jersey and Connecticut and has a pending application as a practicing Psychologist in New Jersey.

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Alcohol withdrawal symptoms range from severe to mild depending on drug history, gender, co-occurring disorders, if you abused alcohol with other drugs, etc. Generally, the side effects kick in six hours after your last drink, worsen within 24 to 72 hours, and may start to lessen a week later. However, withdrawal symptoms may take a long time to improve for others.

Short Term Symptoms

People experiencing mild withdrawal side effects may encounter the below initial symptoms. Typically, these side effects may disappear as fast as they appear and often reduce within a day or two. Initial symptoms manifesting a few hours after your last drink may include:


  • Tremors

  • Trouble sleeping (Insomnia)

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Feeling on edge or restless.

  • Anxiety

  • Headache

  • Sweating


More Serious Symptoms

If you have a severe case of alcohol withdrawal, you will likely experience more serious side effects like:


  • Hallucinations usually manifest 24 hours after your last drink and may involve untrue auditory, tactile or visual events.

  • Withdrawal seizures are generalized, and like hallucinations, they appear 24 hours after your last alcohol intake.

  • Status epilepticus is a dangerous seizure affecting 3% of people who develop seizures. The condition is a medical emergency that may lead to death or disability.

  • Delirium tremens (DTs) is the worst symptom of alcohol withdrawal, occurring 2 to 3 days after your last drink. However, death from DTs is rare with immediate medical help and prevention. Doctors characterize DTs by the following symptoms:


  • Feeling Confused or Disoriented

  • Having Hallucinations

  • Rapid Heart Rate

  • Increased Breathing Rate

  • High Blood Pressure/Hypertension

  • Low-Grade Fever

  • Profuse Sweating

  • Feeling Agitated

  • Stupor

  • Loss Of Consciousness

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Alcohol Withdrawal Diagnosis

Specific tests for alcohol withdrawal are nonexistent; however, your doctor will take you through several physical and psychological examinations and assess your medical history. Afterward, the doctor studies both the results to determine the severity of your withdrawal and gives you a diagnosis. The doctor may ask the following when taking your medical history:


  • The length of your alcohol use.

  • The amount of alcohol you use.

  • The last time you had a drink.

  • If you have had withdrawal symptoms initially.

  • If you have other psychiatric or underlying health issues.


Most people are afraid of talking to their doctor because of the stigma linked to speaking out about heavy drinking. However, you should not be scared of your doctor but honest and open to giving you the correct diagnosis and treatment plan.

Since alcohol affects various organs like the nervous system, liver, or heart, your doctor may do blood tests to check for damage in these areas. Additionally, your doctor may perform a psychological exam to better understand your thoughts and insights. Most doctors may use the new, improved version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to make a better judgment.

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How Doctors Manage Alcohol Withdrawal

Treating alcohol withdrawal involves combining various supportive care and medications.


Supportive Care

Supportive care involves activities that help boost your immune system, like drinking enough fluids, maintaining electrolyte balance, and eating nutrients like thiamine, folate, or dextrose.



The Food and Drug Administration approves Acamprosate, Naltrexone, and Disulfiram to treat alcohol dependence. These drugs are not addictive, so don’t worry; they will not act as a substitute for alcohol. Instead, they are manufactured in a way that treats long-term medical conditions.

Let’s dive in:

  • Naltrexone blocks specific receptors in your brain, reducing alcohol cravings.

  • Disulfiram works against alcohol by creating adverse side effects such as nausea when you drink alcohol. These side effects dissuade you from retaking alcohol.

  • Acamprosate helps to reduce the withdrawal side effects when you quit or reduce drinking alcohol.


For years now, Benzodiazepines have been the primary drugs for treating alcohol. These sedative drugs ease withdrawal symptoms and prevent delirium tremens and seizures. Some examples of benzos include diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), etc.


Your doctor may prescribe benzos with other drugs like haloperidol (Haldol) and clonidine (Catapres).

Alcohol Rehabilitation

There are various treatment options for alcohol rehabilitation, including detox, inpatient/residential alcohol treatment, partial hospitalization programs, intensive outpatient programs, and outpatient alcohol treatment. Your doctor will prescribe one of the treatment plans depending on the severity of your drug use.


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The Bottom Line

You can prevent the side effects of alcohol withdrawal by preventing long-term use of alcohol. Set goals, monitor the amount of alcohol you drink, and keep a record of your drinking habits to ensure you never exceed the limits. If you are in a place that triggers your drinking habits, try changing activities, and never forget to ask for help when you feel overwhelmed.

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