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Updated on February 28, 2023
7 min read

What is the Kindling Effect in Alcohol Withdrawal?

Ellie Swain
Elena Borrelli M.S.PAC
Written by 
6 Sources Cited
Ellie Swain
Written by 
6 Sources Cited

The Kindling Effect in Alcohol Withdrawal Explained

Alcohol kindling occurs when a person experiences repeated alcohol withdrawals, and the symptoms become more severe with each relapse.

Kindling in alcoholism can be compared to when someone kindles a fire. Kindling a fire means creating a spark and then igniting the fire. 

If someone starts a fire using material that’s already burning, the fire is easy to kindle and create. For example, hot coals.

Alcohol kindling effects are the main reason why people relapse.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms and Alcohol Kindling

When a person is addicted to alcohol and stops or reduces their drinking, they’ll experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms usually start within 12 to 24 hours after the last drink. 

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Cravings 
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Agitation and restlessness
  • Problems concentrating
  • Insomnia
  • Vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures and tremors

Withdrawal symptoms occur because the brain and body are attempting to return to a state where they don’t need alcohol to function. Detox occurs when the body is trying to remove alcohol toxins.

The intensity of these withdrawal symptoms can drive someone to begin drinking again to soothe their emotional distress or pain. 

During the kindling effect, the body and brain become highly sensitive to alcohol and the withdrawal symptoms that develop.

Every relapse and detox from alcohol becomes more painful and intense. More severe withdrawal symptoms can develop because of alcohol kindling during each occurrence of relapse and withdrawal.

The risk of seizures and a dangerous condition called delirium tremens increase because of alcohol kindling.

Is the Kindling Effect Real?

The medical framework of kindling is applied to many issues involving brain chemistry, including:

  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Epilepsy
  • Benzodiazepine abuse
  • Mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder

The Introduction of Alcohol Kindling

Kindling was first recorded in 1986 when neuroscientist Graham Goddard electrically stimulated different areas of rats’ brains to assess the learning process. However, the rats began to experience seizures in response to other stimulation that would typically be too low to cause convulsions. 

Eventually, the rats developed seizure disorders. They’d experience convulsions that would begin without any stimuli.

Both clinical and experimental evidence supports the existence of alcohol kindling during withdrawal.1 Withdrawal symptoms, like seizures, occur from neurochemical imbalances in the brain of heavy drinkers who suddenly reduce or stop alcohol consumption.1

Alcohol kindling during withdrawal suggests that even those with mild withdrawal should be treated aggressively. This helps to prevent the increase in the severity of withdrawal episodes.1

Kindling may also contribute to a person’s relapse risk, alcohol-related brain damage, and cognitive impairment. 


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Who is at Risk for the Kindling Effect?

Groups at risk for alcohol kindling include people:

  • Trying to recover from alcoholism
  • Who have achieved sobriety
  • Who has relapsed several times
  • Who cycled through withdrawal and relapse episodes several times
  • Who have mental health disorders                                                                                                                                                                                                            
  • With boredom and isolation issues
  • With emotional concerns
  • With relationship problems
  • With life stressors

Does Kindling Ever Go Away?

Kindling can be overcome with long enough abstinence from alcohol. New brain cell growth helps to overcome kindling.

However, it’s important to:

  • Avoid toxins like alcohol
  • Consume a healthy diet
  • Exercise moderately

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Can You Treat Alcohol Kindling?

There’s no cure for alcohol kindling. However, the effective management of symptoms and relapse prevention can help.

Attending a medical detox center helps to reduce withdrawal symptoms and can set you up with comprehensive aftercare treatment programs.

Treatment for kindling mainly focuses on keeping the person safe. Specific measures are taken to ensure they’re as comfortable as possible during the process.

Therapies can be used to help people manage the anxiety and distress resulting from painful alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Medications can also address anxiety and depression and help prevent seizures. 

For many people with alcohol kindling, treatment can take several weeks or longer.

Anticonvulsant Medication

If you experience delirium tremens or are at risk for seizures during detox, your doctor may prescribe anticonvulsant medication. For example, a benzodiazepine. 

A benzodiazepine is a short-term anti-anxiety medication that works on the GABA receptors to induce similar effects as alcohol. Your doctor may prescribe a different anticonvulsant, especially if you have epilepsy.

Scans show that the brain remains impaired during the early stages of the recovery process, which can last for several weeks. 

Even when the body isn’t dependent on alcohol to manage brain chemistry, compulsive behaviors triggered by cravings or stress may still contribute to relapse.

Repeated attempts to quit alcohol without success may require an inpatient rehab program instead of outpatient treatment.


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Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options

Alcoholism treatment can vary depending on your needs. However, working to stop alcohol use to improve quality of life is the primary treatment goal.

Detox and withdrawal

Treatment may start with a detox program. This is withdrawal that’s medically managed.

Detox often takes between 2 to 5 days. You may need to take sedative medicine to treat withdrawal symptoms.2

Alcohol detox usually occurs at an inpatient treatment center or a hospital. 

Developing new skills

This process usually involves alcohol treatment specialists. 

It may include:2

  • Behavior change techniques
  • Goal setting
  • Use of self-help manuals
  • Counseling
  • Follow-up care at a treatment center


Counseling and therapy help you better understand your issues with alcohol. You may also benefit from couples or family therapy. Family support can be an essential part of the recovery process.2


  • Disulfiram may help you stop drinking. However, it won’t cure alcoholism or remove the urge to drink. If you consume alcohol while taking disulfiram, the drug triggers a physical reaction that may include flushing, nausea, vomiting, and headaches.
  • Naltrexone helps block the positive feelings alcohol causes. It may prevent heavy drinking and reduce the urge to consume alcohol.
  • Vivitrol is a version of naltrexone injected once a month by a healthcare professional. The injectable version may be easier for those recovering from alcoholism to use consistently.
  • Acamprosate: may help stop alcohol cravings after you stop drinking. Unlike disulfiram, naltrexone and acamprosate doesn’tmake you unwell after drinking.2

Residential treatment programs

For severe cases of alcohol use disorder, you may require a stay at a residential treatment center. 

Most residential treatment programs include:2

  • Individual and group therapy
  • Support groups
  • Educational lectures
  • Family support
  • Activity therapy 

Residential treatment programs usually include help from:

  • Licensed alcohol and drug counselors
  • Social workers
  • Nurses
  • Doctors
  • Others with expertise in treating alcohol use disorder


Alcohol kindling occurs when a person experiences repeated alcohol withdrawals, and the symptoms become more severe with each relapse.Both clinical and experimental evidence support the existence of alcohol kindling during withdrawal.

Kindling can be overcome with long enough abstinence from alcohol. Detox and medications can also help manage the symptoms of alcohol kindling.

Updated on February 28, 2023
6 sources cited
Updated on February 28, 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. Becker, H C. “Kindling in alcohol withdrawal.” Alcohol health and research world vol. 22,1, 1998
  2. Alcohol use disorder, Mayo Clinic, May 2022
  3. Modesto-Lowe, Vania et al. “Alcohol withdrawal kindling: is there a role for anticonvulsants?.” Psychiatry, 2005
  4. Shapero, Benjamin G et al. “Kindling of Life Stress in Bipolar Disorder: Effects of Early Adversity.” Behavior therapy vol. 48,3, 2017
  5. Wackernah, Robin C et al. “Alcohol use disorder: pathophysiology, effects, and pharmacologic options for treatment.” Substance abuse and rehabilitation vol. 5 1-12. 23 Jan. 2014.
  6. Miller, Peter M et al. “Medical treatment of alcohol dependence: a systematic review.” International journal of psychiatry in medicine vol. 42,3, 2011.
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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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