Understanding Uncommon Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Gillian May

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If you’ve ever drank more than the safe drinking limit (1 drink for a woman and 2 drinks for a man), then you’re probably familiar with the dreaded hangover. As a recovering alcoholic, I remember hangovers well and hope I never experience one again.

As a former nurse who worked in the addictions and mental health field, I want people to know more about what alcohol does to their bodies. Alcohol is a toxin that causes serious changes in the nervous system and puts pressure on all the organs to complete their functions.

But what I want people to understand is that a hangover is not just the haphazard fallout of drinking alcohol. It’s actually alcohol withdrawal. Whenever you drink past the safe limit, you set yourself up for alcohol withdrawal as soon as you stop drinking.

Alcohol withdrawal has many symptoms depending on how much alcohol was consumed and the person’s drinking history. The symptoms range from mild headache, nausea, and anxiety to more severe symptoms such as vomiting, hallucinations, and seizures.

Most people are aware of these mild and severe symptoms. However, there are some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that people may not know about. I think it’s important to talk about this so people can make more informed decisions about their alcohol use. At the very least, these lesser-known symptoms can be demystified which can help calm down the panic or confusion associated with them.

1. Tingling

A feeling of tingling in the hands and feet after drinking is a sign of nervous system damage. Alcohol is toxic to the nervous system and can cause damage even after one night of heavy drinking. Although these effects often subside and the damage reverses, repeated withdrawals may make it more difficult for the body to recuperate over time.

2. Nightmares

Once a person stops drinking, their nervous system becomes hyper-excitable, which affects how the brain functions. This hyper-excitability can cause changes in behavior, perceptions, and processing of information. These toxic changes in the brain can result in symptoms like nightmares.

3. Migraines

Alcohol has long been known as a migraine trigger. Migraines are worse than regular headaches as they affect the nerves and blood vessels in the brain. Alcohol’s effect on the blood vessels and nerves of the brain often triggers a new migraine. Also, some people who have an allergy to red wine will get a migraine within minutes of drinking. Alcohol often causes the blood vessels in the brain to dilate, which can set off a new migraine attack. People who suffer from chronic migraines shouldn’t consume alcohol at all.

4. Anxiety and panic attacks

Anxiety and panic disorders affect about 284 million people worldwide. Because this is a relatively common condition, it can be challenging to figure out what triggered the anxiety or panic attack. Many other issues and conditions overlap, so many people wouldn’t think of alcohol as a significant trigger. However, the number one symptom that happens in virtually everyone that drinks past the safe limit is — anxiety. Again, this is due to alcohol’s detrimental effect on the nervous system. The anxiety of alcohol withdrawal is often accompanied by the following two symptoms: depersonalization and flushing/sweating.

5. Depersonalization

Depersonalization is described as feeling “not real.” It’s as if the world is going on around you, but you don’t feel a part of it. This symptom is often accompanied by anxiety and can trigger a full-blown panic attack. Again, this is a result of alcohol’s toxic effect on the nervous system. This symptom can progress to more serious withdrawal symptoms depending on the amount of alcohol consumed and how long the person has engaged in heavy drinking.

6. Flushing and sweating

Flushing, which is often accompanied by sweating, is a feeling of heat rushing to the face. Afterward, the sweating is often described as a “cold sweat.” This is due to the effects of alcohol on the nervous system as well as the blood vessels. For some people, alcohol use can trigger big swings in blood pressure, often producing a cold sweat feeling. Many people experience this symptom along with anxiety, panic, and a sense of depersonalization.

7. Blurry vision

Blurry vision often happens due to alcohol-related nervous system changes in the area of the brain that deals with vision. Also, alcohol is very dehydrating, which can also exacerbate blurry vision.

8. Swelling

Because alcohol is a toxin, the liver, kidneys, and digestive tract must work hard to process and remove the toxin. If alcohol was consumed in large amounts, it may be difficult for the organs to keep up. This is especially problematic if a person has other comorbid conditions that cause stress on the organs. These conditions are things like diabetes, cardiovascular issues, renal disease, autoimmune problems, etc. If the body struggles with processing the alcohol, there can be swelling in the face, hands, and feet.

9. Lack of concentration

Having difficulties with concentration is another mild and relatively common symptom of alcohol withdrawal. I draw attention to it because many people don’t realize that alcohol use may be the culprit. Difficulties with concentration can be due to many other issues with physical and mental health. However, many people who drink past the safe limits struggle with this symptom more than others.

10. Sugar craving or changes in food preferences

Alcohol is loaded with sugar and carboydrates. Although these are empty calories, the body nonetheless begins to rely on these sugars while drinking. Also, drinking causes the body to have big spikes in blood sugar followed by a crash once drinking stops. This can lead people to have sugar cravings during alcohol withdrawal. It may also cause some aversions to other foods that the person once enjoyed. This is because sugar crashes can sometimes also cause nausea in some people. The stomach lining is often irritated during alcohol withdrawal which can mean that some foods are not as palatable during these times.

11. Thirst

As most people are aware, heavy alcohol use is very dehydrating. There is a chemical compound in alcohol that causes us to urinate more while drinking. During drinking binge, we will urinate quite frequently and often don’t take in enough regular fluids since we are replacing that by drinking alcohol. Heavy habitual alcohol use also causes people to decrease their fluid intake so as not to disturb the “high.” Because of this, people who use alcohol frequently tend to be chronically dehydrated. This is especially potent during alcohol withdrawal and may give rise to intense thirst.

All of these symptoms can happen to anybody, especially if they drink past the safe limits (1 drink for a woman and 2 drinks for a man). It’s essential to know these symptoms as many people may be confused by them and mistake them for a different condition. Although most people know about hangovers and serious withdrawal, most don’t recognize all the symptoms that can happen to anyone.

The more we learn about how alcohol affects our body and mind, the more we can make better decisions around alcohol use.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational.


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