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Is It A Hangover Or Alcohol Withdrawal?

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Category: Alcohol

Hangovers happen after heavy consumption of alcohol, while alcohol withdrawal is when a heavy drinker suddenly decreases their drinking.

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Young women hungover from alcohol or facing alcohol withdrawal

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Have you ever experienced alcohol withdrawal? It is a condition that happens to people who drink regularly and then stop using alcohol. Not to be confused with a hangover, which can occur to casual drinkers, alcohol withdrawal occurs when a chronic drinker suddenly decreases their alcohol intake. Hangovers can be experienced by either alcoholics and light drinkers after heavy consumption of alcohol.

Am I A Heavy Drinker?

If you think you have experienced alcohol withdrawal, you may be wondering where you fall on the spectrum of light, moderate, and heavy drinking. How much is too much depends on a person’s sex, age, and weight but below are a few general guidelines.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you are a heavy drinker if:

  • Your sex at birth is female, and you drink over 7 drinks per week or more than 3 drinks per occasion. 
  • Your sex at birth is male, and you drink over 14 drinks per week or more than 4 drinks per occasion.
  • You are 65 years of age or older and drink over 7 drinks per week or more than 3 drinks per sitting.

When our brains are constantly exposed to alcohol, they adjust to compensate for the drug’s effects. If the alcohol disappears from the body, the brain continues overcompensating even though the drug is gone. After a while, the overstimulation leads to what is known as alcohol withdrawal. 

Here are some additional quick background facts for context. 

  • On average, over 200,000 Americans struggle with alcohol withdrawal annually. 
  • The signs of alcohol withdrawal can begin after 2 hours to 4 days. 
  • They can range in severity or even be life-threatening. 
  • Mild symptoms can occur within 6 hours of not drinking. 
  • People who have abused heavy amounts of alcohol for years may develop more severe symptoms. 
  • These symptoms can appear within 12 to 24 hours (hallucinations) or 2 days (seizures).  
  • Moderate drinkers, those who drink 2 drinks or less in a day (males) or 1 drink or less in a day (female), are unlikely to develop withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking.
  • The disorder usually affects individuals who are chronic heavy drinkers. 

*Note that someone who has experienced alcohol withdrawal once is likely to experience it again even if they are now moderate drinkers.


Now that we know what alcohol withdrawal is, what are the symptoms? It is important to remember that hangovers are not the same as alcohol withdrawal though some symptoms may be similar.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary per person but may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Shaky hands
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating

A severe but uncommon form of alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens. Delirium tremens (DT) affect about 5% of people attempting to quit alcohol. DT is commonly observed in individuals with a history of alcohol withdrawal. The condition usually begins 48 to 72 hours after a person stops drinking. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline 

After someone decides to quit alcohol, withdrawal symptoms begin within 6 hours of a person’s last drink. Once 12 hours pass, they may sweat, feel nauseous, or become irritable. Their body can tremor, their heart race, and their blood pressure rise. Most individuals will likely experience insomnia after 12 hours. 

One of the reasons quitting alcohol without medical supervision is not recommended is the drug’s withdrawal effects at the 24 to 48 hours mark. During that time, people can experience seizures, hallucinations, or delirium tremens. As the hours pass, the condition worsens. Between the third and fifth days of withdrawal, people can continue to experience DT and emotional distress. Fortunately, the withdrawal cycle only lasts about a week and subsides after 5 days.

It is important to note that recovering from psychological symptoms takes longer than a week. Symptoms like anxiety, irritability, and insomnia can take weeks or months to subside.

Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment

If, after thorough research, you believe you are battling an alcohol use disorder, you may be interested in detoxing. But individuals should never self-diagnose or detox alone. The best and most guaranteed way a person will recover from alcohol addiction is by finding medical help. There are several treatment options. 

A physician may recommend a medication assisted treatment (MAT) option based on the severity of the alcohol withdrawal symptoms. During MAT, patients take medications like Naltrexone to support their recovery and subside their discomforts. These institutions also have a plethora of other forms of treatment like counseling and group therapy. Typically patients in treatment are supervised to ensure their safety. Medical professionals monitor their vital signs as well as blood pressure.

Get Help With Alcohol Withdrawal And Addiction Today

In the United States, nearly 15 million people 12 and older are battling an alcohol use disorder. Unfortunately, treating the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is only a short-term fix. Getting to the root cause of the problem that caused the substance abuse in the first place is necessary. 

If you or a loved one are experiencing alcohol withdrawal or are battling an alcohol addiction, there is help available. Contact a treatment provider if you have any rehab related questions or need help finding a treatment center.