When someone wakes up after a night of drinking and feels dehydrated, nauseous and achy, we label this a hangover – a side effect of drinking too much. When an alcoholic or dependent drinker wakes up after a night of drinking, he or she will have different symptoms, due to drinking what their brain perceives as too little.
Since over time the body and brain become used to a steady flow of alcohol, withdrawal begins immediately when that perceived need is not being fed. This is why many who are dependent are compelled to drink first thing in the morning each and every day. They do not want to experience these symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
The severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms will depend on many factors, the major one being how long an individual has been drinking heavily. As a general rule, individuals will experience minor withdrawal symptoms after a heavy drinking period of between 7 and 30 days and major symptoms after a period of more than a month to several years of regular alcohol abuse.
Minor symptoms may initially be attributed to a hangover. They include heavy sweating, insomnia, vomiting, hand tremors and a rapid pulse. Often, the person’s sweat smells of alcohol, since the concentration in the body is so extreme. These symptoms will be accompanied by a strong craving for more alcohol.
Severe symptoms can be life threatening. They include visual and auditory hallucinations, heart palpitations and seizures. Only a small number of alcoholics require hospitalization during detox, but it is impossible to tell ahead of time, so supervision is necessary, even if it is just a trusted friend sleeping on the couch. People who have gone through detox multiple times are more susceptible to severe withdrawal symptoms.
Although it may seem like it at the time, alcohol withdrawal symptoms do not last forever. In most cases, they last for about a week to ten days, getting progressively less severe. It’s important to note that a few days of discomfort can help to prevent a lifetime of health problems and/or an early death.
Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.