What Is Acute Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

Acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) can occur when someone with an alcohol use disorder stops drinking. Certain risk factors can make severe withdrawal symptoms more likely. Detox and treatment is available for people with an alcohol dependence.

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Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS

Medically Reviewed By: Manish Mishra, MBBS


Acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome can occur when someone who has been heavily drinking alcohol suddenly stops drinking.

When the body and brain get used to heavy alcohol consumption, a difficult adjustment period can happen when a person stops drinking.

This adjustment period is called alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can range from mild to severe, and even life-threatening.

Acute alcohol withdrawal usually occurs within the first two weeks after a person’s last drink. Sometimes, mild symptoms of alcohol may persist for weeks, months, or even years. This is called “post-acute withdrawal syndrome”.

Symptoms Of Acute Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol can range from mild to life-threatening. Below are some of the most notable alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Minor Symptoms Of Acute Alcohol Withdrawal

Many people only experience minor withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can still pose serious health risks.

Minor symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

While many of these symptoms are serious, they are still minor when compared to some of the most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol Hallucinosis

Alcohol hallucinosis can occur in some people during acute alcohol withdrawal. This set of symptoms includes disorientation and visual, auditory, and/or tactile hallucinations.

Alcohol hallucinosis can sometimes occur as part of a very severe and life-threatening form of alcohol withdrawal called alcohol withdrawal delirium or delirium tremens (DTs).

Other times, hallucinations may occur without other symptoms of DTs.

Withdrawal Seizures

Seizures are one of the primary concerns during acute alcohol withdrawal. Treatment of alcohol withdrawal by medical professionals can help to prevent seizures.

Seizures sometimes happen during withdrawal due to huge changes in the central nervous system that occur as the body adjusts to not having alcohol.

Medication is often given to prevent seizures during alcohol withdrawal.

Benzodiazepines are an anti-anxiety and anticonvulsant drug class that work by enhancing the effects of a neurotransmitter in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Benzos are commonly prescribed during withdrawal to prevent seizures, ease anxiety and panic attacks, and decrease pain.

Delirium Tremens

Delirium Tremens (DTs) is a severe and particularly dangerous form of alcohol withdrawal.
Symptoms of delirium tremens include all of the typical symptoms of withdrawal, plus some more serious symptoms.

DTs symptoms may include:

  • severe agitation
  • body tremors
  • sleep that lasts a day or more
  • sudden, severe confusion
  • bursts of energy
  • intense fatigue
  • seizures

Alcohol withdrawal seizures are the primary concern when delirium tremens develops. However, even without seizures, the delirium and other symptoms associated with DTs can present serious health concerns.

Risk Factors For Developing Acute Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Everyone’s acute withdrawal phase from alcohol looks different. Some people only experience minor symptoms, while others go through a severe form of withdrawal.

Existing medical conditions and other factors can heighten the risk of severe withdrawal symptoms.

Co-Existing Infection Or Medical Issue Such As Pancreatitis

Any time someone has additional health issues besides their substance use disorder, the risk for severe withdrawal rises.

Withdrawal is taxing on the body, so those who have weakened organs or other medical issues may have a harder time.

Past History Of Delirium Tremens

Some people appear to be more susceptible to severe effects of alcohol withdrawal. Anyone who has gone through withdrawal before and suffered symptoms of DTs should take extra caution.

Going through withdrawal at an inpatient detox center where medical care is provided around the clock is always safer than outpatient care, especially for people who have had DTs before.

Abnormal Liver Function

The liver plays an important role in removing toxins from the body. Heavy alcohol use is hard on the liver and often leads to liver disease.

Anyone who has decreased liver function is at higher risk for serious withdrawal symptoms.

High Alcohol Intake

In general, the longer and more heavily someone has been drinking, the more difficult acute withdrawal will be.

Prolonged heavy alcohol abuse can lead to severe physical and mental dependence on alcohol.

How To Manage Acute Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Fortunately, management of alcohol withdrawal symptoms is usually possible. The following are some of the key interventions included in alcohol detoxification plans:

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medications can help manage acute withdrawal symptoms. This is called medication-assisted treatment or pharmacotherapy.

Among the most common medications used for alcohol withdrawal include:

  • diazepam (Valium)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)
  • chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • antipsychotics
  • hypertension medications
  • other benzodiazepines
  • anticonvulsants

Healthy Diet

A healthy diet is a critical part of any alcohol detox program. Eating the right foods during alcohol detox helps to replenish nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that are lost during alcohol use.

Some key foods to eat while detoxing from alcohol include:

  • low-fat proteins
  • whole grains
  • poultry and fish
  • fruits and vegetables
  • foods rich in vitamin B

Intravenous Thiamine (Vitamin B) Treatment

Heavy alcohol use often leads to a vitamin B deficiency in the body. When vitamin B is deficient, Wernicke encephalopathy may develop.

This disorder is unrelated to alcohol withdrawal but it can contribute to problems during withdrawal.

Vitamin B is often given through an IV during withdrawal because it absorbs into the body better than oral vitamin B.

Treatment Options For Alcohol Addiction

Management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome during detox is the first step to recovery from alcohol addiction.

After acute withdrawal has passed, clinicians and addiction experts will give medical advice on the next steps in recovery.

In order to avoid relapse, an inpatient treatment program will often be necessary. Inpatient alcohol treatment combines behavioral, mental, and physical health interventions to address addiction.

During inpatient care, you will have access to a wide range of resources, from psychiatry experts to meditation and yoga classes.

Inpatient programs give you time to focus entirely on your recovery from alcohol abuse.

Find Alcohol Abuse Treatment At Bedrock Recovery Center

Bedrock Recovery Center is a state-of-the-art detox and rehab facility located in Canton, MA. We offer medical detox and inpatient treatment programs to people with alcohol and/or drug abuse issues.

Our treatment plans focus on addressing the underlying causes of addiction and setting our clients up for long-term success in their recovery.

Call our helpline today to learn more about our rehab plans.

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) https://nida.nih.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states/types-treatment-programs
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) https://store.samhsa.gov/product/TIP-45-Detoxification-and-Substance-Abuse-Treatment/SMA15-4131
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/medications-counseling-related-conditions
  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000764.htm

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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