How Much Alcohol Causes Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is one of the side effects of drinking heavily. When you try to quit drinking or reduce it, you will feel a number of unpleasant symptoms. Often, the discomfort can be so great that you would rather go back to drinking just to make them go away. This is why most attempts to quit alcohol on your own end up failing.

You may be wondering how much you have to drink to get alcohol withdrawal. Read on to find out more.

How would I know if I’m a heavy drinker?

Alcohol WithdrawalThe Centers for Disease Control defines excessive alcohol use as consuming more than 15 drinks per week for men or more than 8 drinks per week for women. One drink is equivalent to:

  • 12 ounces of beer at 5% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine at 12% alcohol
  • 5 ounces (or one shot) of hard liquor (vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, etc.) at 40% alcohol

If you do not drink as many in a week, then you are drinking only moderately. But if your drinking habits fit these criteria, you are drinking heavily. This way, you are more vulnerable to developing withdrawal symptoms.

How much alcohol do I have to drink to experience withdrawal?

There is no definite number of drinks or volume of alcohol you need to consume so you will be prone to withdrawal. A good rule of thumb to remember is any form of heavy drinking can make you vulnerable to developing withdrawal symptoms later on.

If your concern is the safe level of drinking to avoid withdrawal symptoms, stick with moderate drinking. Better yet, avoid alcohol as much as you can. If there is no alcohol in your system, you can never get withdrawal symptoms.

What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?

Withdrawal from alcohol occurs in three stages. Stage 1 begins about 6 to 8 hours after your last drink. Symptoms at this stage are often mild, and they include:

  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Shaky hands
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Then, 24 to 72 hours after your last drink, withdrawal will progress to Stage 2. Symptoms at this stage are moderate, and it’s also at this stage that they reach their peak.

  • Alcohol Causes WithdrawalAny Stage 1 symptoms, plus:
  • Confusion
  • Increased body temperature
  • Rapid breathing
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate

The third stage of withdrawal occurs within one week after your last drink. This is the most severe stage of symptoms, which includes:

  • Any Stage 2 symptoms, plus:
  • Seizures
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations (visual or auditory)
  • Impaired attention

If withdrawal is not treated right away, it is possible for you to move up from Stage 2 to Stage 3 in less time. In rare cases, some of your symptoms may last for months on end. These include fatigue, mood changes, and trouble sleeping.

This timeline of symptoms may not apply to everyone experiencing alcohol withdrawal. The time it takes for each set of symptoms to show up depends on several factors, such as:

  • How much alcohol you consume each time
  • How frequently you drink heavily
  • How long you have been drinking heavily
  • Presence of other health problems
  • Existing mental health issues

Having other physical and mental health problems can make you more prone to alcohol withdrawal.

Delirium tremens

In about five percent of cases, a severe form of withdrawal called delirium tremens develops. This is a potentially life-threatening condition and must be treated as a medical emergency. Symptoms of delirium tremens include:

  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Body tremors
  • Deep sleep lasting for more than a day
  • Bursts of energy
  • Quick changes in mood
  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Sleepiness
  • Stupor (nearly losing consciousness)
  • Delirium (sudden, severe confusion)
  • Seizures

Seizures may occur without the other symptoms. Commonly, they happen 12 to 48 hours after your last drink. You are more prone to seizures if you have experienced any complications from past episodes of withdrawal.

Seizures from delirium tremens are usually generalized tonic-clonic seizures. This is characterized by:

  • Alcohol WithdrawalStiffening of the muscles
  • Losing consciousness
  • Falling to the floor
  • Jerking of the arms and legs

These seizures normally last for 1 to 3 minutes. In some cases, they may last longer than 5 minutes. At this point, it becomes a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical help if someone you know experiences a seizure lasting more than 5 minutes.

What are the treatments for alcohol withdrawal?

If you’ve had a drinking problem for a while now, and you want to quit, do not try to do it on your own. Withdrawal makes quitting extremely difficult without any help. Instead, talk to your doctor and seek professional help.

Safely quitting alcohol involves medically assisted detox. Here, doctors will assist you while detoxing from alcohol. They will help you manage withdrawal, minimizing the symptoms to tolerable levels. Medications can be prescribed as well to better keep withdrawal symptoms at bay.

Common medications used in alcohol detox include:

  • Acamprosate: helps reduce your cravings for alcohol
  • Disulfiram: produces unpleasant reactions if you drink alcohol, deterring you from drinking
  • Naltrexone: inhibits the pleasurable feelings produced by alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines: helps calm your central nervous system; relieves anxiety, insomnia, and shaking

If you experience any medical emergencies during detox, doctors are on standby to help you the moment you need it. If any of your medications give you discomfort, you may inform the doctors right away and they will adjust your prescription.

After completing your alcohol detox, the next phase of treatment usually involves behavioral therapies. One example is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to replace negative thought patterns with positive and realistic ones. At the end of CBT, you will have the skills you need to avoid alcohol on your own.

Mental health professionals may recommend residential (inpatient) treatment to guarantee the best outcomes. In residential treatment, you will live inside a rehab facility for 1 to 3 months, depending on your treatment program. This is often recommended for severe cases of alcohol abuse.

If your case is mild, though, outpatient treatment may work well for you. Here, you only need to go to the rehab facility during scheduled therapy sessions.