Should You Seek Medical Aid for Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

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Due to the profound effects on the brain and body caused by excessive or long-term alcohol misuse, quitting abruptly or “cold turkey” can be highly uncomfortable. Withdrawal symptoms that result can even be dangerous and life-threatening in severe cases. 

Although some individuals might be able to handle withdrawal symptoms at home without experiencing significant health issues, medical detox is the safest way to quit drinking. Clinical oversight can reduce the risk of severe health complications and can address them immediately if they occur. In addition, medications can be administered to relieve physical withdrawal effects, reduce cravings, and make the detox process more manageable.

Our intensive alcohol addiction treatment program at Guardian Recovery offers safe and effective medical aid so detoxing at home can be avoided. If you think you might benefit from medical detox and customed treatment for alcoholism, contact us today and learn more about how we can help.

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What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is hallmarked by several symptoms that result from abrupt alcohol cessation. 

AWS Symptoms Include:

  • Insomnia and sleep disturbances.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Anxiety and restlessness.
  • Rapid heart rate or palpitations.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Hand tremors.
  • Visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations.
  • Profound confusion and delusions.
  • Seizures.

AWS has four stages of severity based on the symptoms the person is experiencing. (1) The first stage consist of relatively mild symptoms, such as nausea, anxiety, and insomnia. These symptoms manifest between 8-12 hours after consumption of the last drink. 

The second stage onsets between 12-24 hours and includes first-stage symptoms in increased severity and possible hallucinations. The third stage manifests between 24-48 hours and can include increased blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, elevated body temperature, and rapid breathing. Alongside these, more severe mental problems can arise, including confusion, irritability, and mood swings.

Not everyone experiences the fourth stage, which is the most severe and typically only occurs in extreme cases. Symptoms noted above may persist and increase in severity and can be accompanied by the onset of delirium tremens (DTs). (2) This life-threatening condition can manifest 48-72 hours after consuming the last drink.

Delirium Tremens Symptoms Include:

  • Sweating.
  • Fever.
  • Nightmares.
  • Confusion and disorientation.
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Seizures.

The mortality rate for people who experience DTs ranges from 1% to 4%, which can be further lowered by effective and prompt intervention. Common causes of fatality in DT are hyperthermia, cardiac arrhythmias, seizure complications, or concurrent medical disorders. (3) Receiving medical intervention can significantly decrease the risk of fatality.

What Causes AWS?

Chronic alcohol misuse mainly affects two brain neurochemicals, which play a significant role in the development of AWS. The first is the inhibitory neurotransmitter (4) GABA, which reduces brain activity. The second is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, which stimulates brain activity. These chemical messengers together control the brain’s excitatory response and other processes. (5)

Alcohol’s presence leads to sedative and anti-anxiety effects, impairs memory and can induce potentially fatal seizures. During withdrawal, GABA levels decrease below normal, leading to hyperactivity of the central nervous system. Simultaneously, glutamate is activated, which also works to stimulate brain activity.

What to Expect From At-Home Alcohol Withdrawal

Healthcare and addiction professionals alike do not recommend attempting to withdraw from alcohol at home without medical supervision. In addition to the risk of severe health complications, at-home detox doesn’t address the psychological symptoms caused by alcohol dependence.

Without emotional support during and after detox, you may be unable to complete the process or give in to the temptation to drink due to the uncomfortable symptoms you encounter. Overall, it can be challenging and risky if you try to manage alcohol withdrawal at home. This process can result in unpleasant physical symptoms and emotions. Dealing with these alone without mental health care may increase your risk of relapse. 

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Why Seek Medical Help for Alcohol Withdrawal?

According to physical and mental health experts, da medically-assisted detox is the preferred means of detox due to the potential for severe and life-threatening complications or relapse. Also, the level of withdrawal management and care required from alcohol detox varies based on the severity of chemical dependence and individual addiction-related issues. These variables cannot be accounted for when a person chooses to remain at home during withdrawal.

For example, if you have a history of severe withdrawal complications such as delirium tremens, you may be at a higher risk of experiencing similar health conditions again. Medical aid and supervision is of the essence to ensure safety in such cases. Therefore, you should be admitted to an inpatient detox facility and monitored around the clock by healthcare providers to receive appropriate medical care and be administered medications as needed.

Benefits of an Inpatient Detox Program

There are several reasons to undergo alcohol detox in an inpatient detox center, including the following:

You’ll Have 24/7 Access to Medical Staff

As noted, some amount of risk is involved with discontinuing alcohol use, especially if you’ve developed a substantial chemical dependence. Because AWS can be severe and even fatal, having immediate access to on-call medical personnel is vital should the situation become life-threatening.

You Can Benefit From a Secure Environment

Removing yourself from an atmosphere that could trigger cravings is a critical step in promoting long-term sobriety. Relapse is common and occurs in a large percentage of adults in first-year recovery. Having a controlled environment during withdrawal can be beneficial for managing cravings and avoiding cues that could provoke a return to alcohol use.

You Can Better Focus on Recovery

The secure environment provided by an inpatient detox will allow you to concentrate more on your recovery and not on external triggers. Individuals who detox at home or on an outpatient basis may still be forced to deal with daily stressors, commitments, and other real-world factors that can undermine recovery. If you are considering whether your alcohol use disorder warrants an inpatient detox, you are urged to discuss treatment options with an addiction professional who can help you determine a suitable level of care.

Medications Can Help in Inpatient Detox

Another benefit of inpatient detox you would not have access to at home is prescription medication that alleviates withdrawal symptoms, such as benzodiazepines. (6) These anti-anxiety drugs, such as Valium and Ativan, can help stabilize symptoms during detox by reducing excitatory activity associated with acute alcohol withdrawal. Unlike alcohol, these can be tapered off safely, which will help mitigate the body’s response to alcohol discontinuation. Other medications can also help reduce cravings or the desire to drink.

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Get Professional Help for Alcohol Detox & Withdrawal Today

Any person with an alcohol dependence attempting to quit will experience mild-severe withdrawal symptoms, some of which can be life-threatening. If you undergo medical detox, this will reduce the risk of dangerous withdrawal effects and ensure the process is as safe and comfortable as possible.

Following detox, you are urged to complete an inpatient, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient program. Our comprehensive alcohol treatment programs at Guardian Recovery offer a full continuum of care. We will provide you with the tools and support you need to sustain long-term sobriety and wellness. 

If you are ready to begin your recovery journey, we can provide you with a free, no-obligation assessment and health insurance benefits check. Learn more about our individualized programs and therapeutic services by contacting us today. 


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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