When you suddenly stop drinking, your body can have a reaction called “withdrawal”, which is its response to the alcohol leaving your body. Some people call this “going cold turkey”. If you have a strong addiction to alcohol, withdrawal can cause strong symptoms, and some of them can be serious enough that you need emergency medical help.
Faster heart rate
If your goal is to quit drinking alcohol, or if you might get severe withdrawal symptoms when you cut back or stop, your health care provider may suggest “withdrawal management”, also known as “detox”. During this process, you will get support to help you go through withdrawal more comfortably and safely. This may include medications and other strategies that help with withdrawal.
The detox day alone simply sobered me up for a day or two: like a mini break from my hell. During these detoxes, I was prescribed lorazepam. This was to stop me from having a seizure, which happens when one stops heavy drinking abruptly.
Before starting the withdrawal management process, the health care provider you see will talk to you about your past experiences with withdrawal. They will ask you questions to understand if you are at low risk or high risk of having severe symptoms. This information will help them determine the best support for you.
If you have a low or medium risk of severe withdrawal symptoms, you can safely go through withdrawal management at home or at an outpatient clinic. To help you feel more comfortable, your health care provider may prescribe medications like gabapentin, carbamazepine or clonidine. See Medications for Withdrawal for information on these medications and what they do.
If your symptoms are very mild, you might find relief with common pain medication like Tylenol, or you might choose not to take any medication at all. You and your health care provider will create a plan for check-ins by phone and in-person visits during this process. Online or virtual care is also available as an option for those who cannot or prefer not to see a health care provider in person.
If you have a high risk of experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms, you will likely need to stay in a hospital or a treatment centre for some time. While you’re there, your health care provider may give you medications like lorazepam (Ativan) or diazepam (Valium), which belong to a group of medications called “benzodiazepines”. These medications can help manage your symptoms and prevent serious problems such as seizures during withdrawal. See Medications for Withdrawal for information on these medications and what they do.
If there are no overnight-stay withdrawal services in your area, you may need to find these services in a larger community or city, or at a nearby hospital.
These are the types of medications that are usually used when treating alcohol withdrawal.
Benzodiazepines (also known as “benzos”) are a type of medication often prescribed to help people going through alcohol withdrawal. They work by calming the brain and body, reducing anxiety, and preventing seizures that can happen during this time. Examples of benzodiazepines include Valium and Ativan. Benzodiazepines should only be used in the short term as they can be dangerous. They can be addictive, and they can cause problems with memory and coordination.
In hospitals, phenobarbital is sometimes used to treat alcohol withdrawal. It helps calm the brain and body, reducing the risk of seizures.
Gabapentin, also known as Neurontin, is a medication commonly used for alcohol withdrawal. It can help with symptoms like anxiety, not being able to sleep and cravings, without causing sleepiness like other medications.
Carbamazepine, also known as Tegretol, is an anticonvulsant medication used to treat mild or moderate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Clonidine, also known as Catapres, may be prescribed for mild withdrawal symptoms, or along with other medications. It can help prevent withdrawal symptoms like high blood pressure and fast heart rate.
If you don’t want to or aren’t ready to get help for problem drinking—or if you can’t get medical help for whatever reason—there are things you can do to drink more safely or stop dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Harm reduction is all about making sure people who use substances stay as safe as possible by giving them resources to protect themselves and reduce the risk of worst-case problems. Harm reduction focuses on what people need and supports their well-being, independence and choices.
Managed alcohol programs (MAPs) are an option to help people who have a goal to drink more safely. In these programs, individuals get a specific amount of alcohol at times throughout the day that is right for them. This helps prevent withdrawal symptoms for those who struggle to get the amount of alcohol they need.
MAPs not only help control drinking, but they also provide support from others and the community. These programs help people stay stable and avoid using unsafe alcohol, like hand sanitizers or mouthwash that has alcohol in it.
MAPs are often run by non-profit organizations in the community, and some are found in hospitals. To join, people usually need to have a serious problem with alcohol and face other challenges like mental health problems, not having enough money or not having stable housing. Some MAPs are available in public housing places, especially for people who don’t have a home and have problems with alcohol. The requirements for each program can be different, and you usually don’t need a referral from a doctor to join.
Whether you are getting treatment or aren’t ready to stop drinking alcohol yet, there are ways for you to be a little safer while drinking. These tips come from a community group in Vancouver called EIDGE (Eastside Illicit Drinkers Group for Education).
It helped to know I could just reduce my drinking without quitting completely.
When you drink alcohol, it can make your brain slower, which makes it hard to react quickly. This means it’s unsafe to do things like driving or operating machinery. Drinking also increases the risk of getting injured from falling or being in other accidents. It’s important to be aware of these risks.
In Canada, it is against the law to drive if your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is higher than the legal limit. The legal limit is 0.08, which means having more than 80 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood. It’s important to know that even if you are below the legal limit, alcohol can still affect your ability to drive safely. This is why it’s best to avoid drinking and driving altogether to stay safe.
The safest option is to avoid driving after drinking any amount of alcohol. Even just 1 drink can make it harder to drive safely. Without a Breathalyzer, it’s difficult to know how each drink will affect your blood alcohol concentration (BAC).
Generally, it’s recommended to have no more than 2 drinks within a 2-hour period. But it’s important to understand that what is okay for one person may put another person over the legal limit. How quickly you feel the effects of one drink can depend on factors like your body type, weight, whether you’ve eaten or had water while drinking, and how much sleep you’ve had.
“Drinking coffee or water will sober me up quicker.”
“Maybe I can have a quick nap—that sobers people up.”
“If I exercise, that will help sober me up.”
“I’ll have a cold shower. That will definitely help sober me up.”
The only way to sober up is time. It takes about six hours for the body to get rid of all the alcohol.
While eating food and drinking water can help to slow down how quickly you get drunk, it cannot sober you up.