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Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches and Dizziness

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Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches and Dizziness

Alcohol withdrawal headaches and dizziness commonly occur during the first 6 to 12 hours after stopping excessive alcohol consumption. The intensity of these symptoms depends on the person. 

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

  • Fatigue
  • Mood swings
  • Jumpiness
  • Clammy skin
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Nausea

These symptoms make up a syndrome called alcohol withdrawal.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is a spectrum of symptoms that occur fairly soon after abruptly stopping 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).

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. Five to 10% of people die despite appropriate treatment. In these cases, medical professionals will administer medication to ease symptoms or sedate the person. Sedation prevents injury and exhaustion.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?

Brain chemistry alters during excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol abuse impairs vital nerve cells that are responsible for inhibiting nerve impulses. 

During recovery, the brain responds to the sudden lack of inhibitory effects of alcohol. This sparks an increase in hyperactivity and causes the release of substances like serotonin and norepinephrine, which affects the force of skeletal muscle and heart contractions.

The brain releases these chemicals in larger quantities than usual, which triggers alcohol withdrawal symptoms. If the brain fails to readjust, it results in a dangerous change in the way it regulates the body’s circulation and breathing, causing delirium tremens (DTs)

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When Do Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches and Dizziness Start?

Alcohol withdrawal headaches and dizziness start at least 6 hours after you stop drinking. These symptoms usually happen due to dehydration. Your body is also adjusting to the sudden decrease in alcohol consumption.

The body’s detox process is laborious, resulting in alcohol withdrawal headaches. Irregular sleep, anxiety, and some detox medications could also cause this symptom. 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 experience them during the first 7 days of detox. Withdrawal headaches typically reach their peak by the third day and begin to dissipate from there.

Alcohol withdrawal headaches are one of the most common first 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.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptom Timeline

The general timeline for alcohol withdrawal symptoms is:

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 some form of behavioral therapy can be helpful.

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, therefore affecting their specific recovery timeline.

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Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)

Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) is also known as prolonged withdrawal 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 use. This can take years to resolve, if ever.

Scientists believe that this significantly reduces the brain’s capacity to endure stress. That’s why 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.

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Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches

There are no specific treatments for alcohol withdrawal headaches. But it’s highly recommended to stay hydrated during the early recovery process. 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. During medically assisted detox, medical professionals administer fluids and medications 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 generally recommended for anyone going through alcohol withdrawal. It’s much safer than enduring the process alone at home. And, if any complications arise, medical professionals will be present to handle the situation.

Medically assisted detox is highly recommended for people who have a long history of alcohol abuse. People who have had previous negative experiences with withdrawal are also good candidates for this kind of detox.

Updated on April 22, 2022
8 sources cited
  1. Gortney et al. “Alcohol withdrawal syndrome in medical patients.” Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, January 2016
  2. Hoffman, RJ and SHarma, AN. “Withdrawal Syndromes.” Comprehensive Pediatric Hospital Medicine, Elsevier Inc., 2007
  3. Lembke, A and Stanford M. “Alcohol and the Nervous System.” Handbook of Clinical Neurology, Elsevier B.V., 2014
  4. MAT Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 4 Mar. 2022
  5. Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT).” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 30 Mar. 2022
  6. O’Connor, PG. “Alcohol Abuse and Dependence.” Goldman’s Cecil Medicine, Elsevier Inc, 2012
  7. Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS).” Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA Jane & Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior
  8. Protracted Withdrawal.” Substance Abuse Treatment Advisory, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, July 2010

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