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Updated on August 7, 2023
6 min read

Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches and Dizziness

Alcohol withdrawal headaches and dizziness commonly occur during the first 6 to 24 hours after stopping excessive alcohol consumption. The intensity of these symptoms depends on the person. 

Along with headaches and dizziness, the following symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may occur during alcohol addiction recovery:

  • Fatigue
  • Mood swings
  • Jumpiness
  • Clammy skin
  • Nausea
  • Enlarged pupils (on rare occasions; may be a symptom of alcohol withdrawal)

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal Dizziness and Headaches?

Withdrawal can take a toll on your body. It can cause changes in blood pressure, contributing to symptoms such as dizziness and headaches.

Alcohol withdrawal headaches and dizziness usually happen due to:

  • Dehydration
  • Your body adjusting to the sudden decrease in alcohol consumption

Eliminating alcohol from your system can be a challenging task, resulting in alcohol withdrawal headaches. Irregular sleep, anxiety, and some detox medications could cause this symptom.

Your genetics can also play a part in getting withdrawal-related dizziness or headaches. If you’re genetically predisposed to headaches, there’s a higher chance you’ll also experience them during withdrawal.

How Long Do Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches Last?

The duration of alcohol withdrawal headaches varies. Some people may experience mild withdrawal symptoms during the first 7 days of detox. Withdrawal headaches typically reach their peak by the third day and fade away over time.

Alcohol withdrawal headaches are one of the most common symptoms of the withdrawal process. They’re also usually the first to go away. However, you might experience headaches again during the rest of the withdrawal process.

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What is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is a spectrum of symptoms that occur when alcohol-dependent people abruptly stop alcohol consumption. People who aren’t dependent on alcohol won’t experience AWS.

The timeline for alcohol withdrawal typically lasts several days to a few weeks. In rare cases, people experiencing alcohol withdrawal may show signs of its more severe form, delirium tremens (DTs).

Signs of Delirium Tremens

The following symptoms characterize DTs:

  • Seizures
  • High fever
  • Circulatory collapse from autonomic dysfunction
  • Auditory or visual hallucinations
  • Severe confusion
  • Agitation

DTs can be life-threatening. Over 15% to 40% of people die despite appropriate treatment.

Medical professionals administer medication to ease symptoms or sedate the person in these cases. Sedation prevents injury and exhaustion.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal occurs due to complex changes in the brain. Prolonged alcohol misuse changes the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate.

When you abruptly stop your alcohol intake, it disrupts these neurotransmitters again. As your brain tries to readjust to the absence of alcohol, withdrawal symptoms like headaches and dizziness begin.

What Happens to the Brain During Alcohol Withdrawal?

During alcohol withdrawal, the brain responds to the sudden lack of alcohol’s inhibitory effects. It releases substances like serotonin and norepinephrine in larger quantities than usual.

The abrupt change results in hyperexcitability and overstimulation, leading to withdrawal symptoms. If the brain fails to readjust, it results in a dangerous change in how it regulates the body’s circulation and breathing, causing DTs.

Factors That Affect Withdrawal

Overall, a person’s experience with alcohol withdrawal depends on several factors, including:

  • Co-occurring mental health issues
  • Use of other substances
  • Family history
  • General health
  • Time spent drinking excessively
  • Quantity of alcohol consumed regularly

These factors can affect how a person’s body reacts to the sudden absence of alcohol. They also affect how a person will mentally respond to the challenge of the withdrawal process, impacting their recovery timeline.

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Timeline of Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms 

The general timeline for alcohol withdrawal symptoms is as follows:

Stage 1

During the first 6 to 12 hours, a person might experience:

  • Anxiety
  • Alcoholic cravings
  • Extreme sweating
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Tremors

Stage 2

The second stage might include a continuation of the first stage and other symptoms like dehydration, hallucinations, and appetite loss. The second stage occurs 12 to 24 hours after completely stopping alcohol consumption.

Stage 3

The third stage is the most critical part of alcohol withdrawal. It typically occurs 2 to 3 days after ceasing alcohol consumption. 

Symptoms like low blood sugar levels, irritability, and seizures might occur. A person can also be at risk for developing DTs, which can be fatal.

Stage 4

Stage four is the last stage of alcohol withdrawal. At this point, most of the physical symptoms should be gone or are beginning to go away. 

A person could begin to feel the mental challenges of recovery, which include depression, anxiety, anger, confusion, and restlessness. During this time, joining a support group or attending behavioral therapy can be helpful.

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Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)

Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) is also known as prolonged or protracted withdrawal syndrome. It often occurs after the alcohol withdrawal period and once the physical symptoms have stopped.

Professionals aren’t entirely sure why people experience PAWS. However, they hypothesize it’s related to the brain's chronic changes during excessive drug or alcohol use. 

PAWS can take years to resolve, if ever. Scientists believe it also significantly reduces the brain’s capacity to endure stress. 

Signs of PAWS 

The most common symptoms of PAWS include:

  • Difficulties with problem-solving and memory recall
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive behavior
  • Apathy
  • Irregular sleep patterns
  • Heightened sensitivity to stress
  • Alcohol cravings
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships

These symptoms can last from a few months to several years. They can also disappear for an extended period and then return later. Highly stressful situations usually trigger PAWS symptoms, but symptoms can reoccur without apparent triggers.

Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches

There are no specific treatments for alcohol withdrawal headaches. But it’s best to stay hydrated during the recovery process. 

Benefits of hydration include:

  • Help your body flush out toxins
  • Maintain proper electrolyte balance
  • Prevent dehydration, which can exacerbate withdrawal symptoms
  • Support the body's detoxification mechanisms
  • Promote cognitive clarity
  • Improve a person’s well-being throughout the challenging withdrawal period

Seeking medical help during detox is also essential to a successful recovery. It’s common for medical professionals to administer medication to help people through withdrawal. 

Common medications include anti-anxiety drugs and beta-blockers that reduce tremors and slow the heart rate.

Medically Assisted Detox

In some cases, a medically assisted detox makes alcohol withdrawal more manageable. Medical professionals administer fluids and medications during medically assisted detox to help control severe withdrawal symptoms. They also normalize vital signs and stop seizure activity to help restore brain chemistry and body functions.

This kind of detox is ideal for anyone going through alcohol withdrawal. It’s much safer than enduring the process alone at home. Medical professionals will be present to handle the situation if you experience any complications.

Medically assisted detox is best for those with a long history of alcohol abuse. People with previous negative experiences with withdrawal are also good candidates for this kind of detox.

Updated on August 7, 2023
8 sources cited
Updated on August 7, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Gortney et al. “Alcohol withdrawal syndrome in medical patients.” Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 2016.

  2. Hoffman et al. “Withdrawal Syndromes.” Comprehensive Pediatric Hospital Medicine, 2007.

  3. Lembke et al. “Alcohol and the Nervous System.” Handbook of Clinical Neurology, 2014.

  4. Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2023.

  5. Medication-Assisted Treatment.” National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare.

  6. O’Connor, P.G. “Alcohol Abuse and Dependence.” Goldman’s Cecil Medicine, Elsevier Inc, 2012.

  7. Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS).” UCLA Jane & Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior.

  8. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. “Protracted Withdrawal.” Substance Abuse Treatment Advisory, 2010.

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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