alcohol withdrawal headache

What is alcohol withdrawal, and why does it happen?

Alcohol withdrawal is a set of symptoms, ranging in severity, that happen when you quit or cut back significantly on drinking.

Withdrawal happens, of all things, because your body is fighting back against the calming effects of alcohol. As you probably know, alcohol is a depressant. When your body fights back, trying to maintain your emotional equilibrium, it therefore makes you anxious and excited to counteract the depressant.

It doesn’t have to be the case that you’re severely dependent on alcohol and quit in order to experience withdrawal - you could be drinking a lot and then drinking less, and you still might get the milder end of the symptoms. However, if you are severely dependent on alcohol and want to quit, you should definitely speak to a doctor before doing so, as that end of the withdrawal spectrum can be so severe it’s fatal.

That’s part of how alcohol gets us addicted - it appears to help deal with anxiety because of its calming effects, and then withdrawal causes more anxiety, and you have to drink to treat symptoms caused by drinking in the first place.

The milder symptoms include:

  • Physical: shakiness, nausea, headache, insomnia, dehydration

  • Emotional: anxiety, irritability

The more severe symptoms (also known as delirium tremens) include:

  • Physical: hallucinations (seeing, hearing or feeling things that aren’t there), seizures, high blood pressure, fever

  • Emotional: confusion, agitation

The symptoms start about 6 hours to a few days after you quit or cut back, and can last for a few days. If you see a doctor, they can help by prescribing medication to deal with the symptoms.

If you decide to quit or cut back on drinking, in addition to seeing a doctor in case of severe withdrawal symptoms, try Drinker’s Helper, our app that helps people quit or cut back on drinking.