Mild, Moderate, and Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

How Withdrawal Works and How to Manage Symptoms

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can occur when you suddenly stop using alcohol after regular excessive drinking and can range from severe to mild. Severe withdrawal symptoms can be quite serious and in rare situations, they can actually be fatal.

Because they can worsen over time, it's important to know whether your symptoms are getting more severe so you can seek help. The most severe symptoms usually occur between two and five days after you stop drinking, which means that the first day or two may not be a good indicator of your risk of serious problems.

Moderate vs. Excessive Drinking

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Moderate drinking is considered safe for most people over the age of 21. A drink is generally defined as:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled liquor or spirits, such as whiskey, gin, rum, or vodka

Excessive drinking is defined by the CDC as heavy drinking, binge drinking, or drinking that's done by anyone who is pregnant or under the age of 21. Binge drinking means consuming multiple drinks during one occasion.

For women, that's four or more drinks and for men, it's five or more. Heavy drinking occurs when women have eight or more drinks a week and men have 15 or more drinks per week. The majority of people who drink excessively do not have an alcohol use disorder and/or aren't dependent on alcohol.

How Withdrawal Works

If you're a heavy drinker—even if you don't have alcohol use disorder—you're likely to experience at least some symptoms if you stop drinking suddenly. Many people who use alcohol use it to relieve anxiety and relax.

Alcohol provides this outcome by increasing the effects of GABA, a neurotransmitter responsible for creating feelings of calm and euphoria. It also decreases glutamate, another neurotransmitter that creates excitability.

Heavy drinking makes it harder and harder to increase GABA and decrease glutamate, so more and more alcohol is required for the same outcome. Your body becomes accustomed to these changes and responds by producing more glutamate and less GABA.

When you suddenly stop drinking, you are no longer impacting these two neurotransmitters, but your body is still over producing glutamate and underproducing GABA. As a result, you may become hyper excited: anxious, restless, and shaky. If you were a heavy drinker, your symptoms may be much more severe, progressing to tremors, seizures, and serious high blood pressure.

Common Withdrawal Symptoms

If you've been regularly drinking excessively, when you stop drinking all of a sudden, you may experience one or more alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Depending on your past alcohol use, these symptoms can range from mild and uncomfortable to severe and potentially life-threatening.

Though symptoms typically begin within eight hours after your last drink, you may not experience any until several days later. These symptoms tend to spike around 24 to 72 hours after your last drink, though milder ones may persist for much longer in some people.

Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling anxious or nervous
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling depressed
  • Feeling wiped out or tired
  • Mood swings
  • Not being able to think clearly
  • Having nightmares
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Shakiness
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Appetite loss
  • Faster heart rate
  • Pale skin
  • Tremor

How Does Your Body Feel When You Quit Drinking?

Alcohol withdrawal generally makes people feel exhausted, especially during the first few days as your body readjusts. You may also feel mentally foggy, like you can't completely focus or concentrate. This is why it's often necessary to set aside days for resting and allowing your body to heal if you're going through alcohol withdrawal.

Severe Withdrawal Symptoms

One of the most severe consequences of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens, or "the DTs."

About 3% to 5% of people who withdraw from heavy drinking experience delirium tremens. This condition can become fatal if it's left untreated, so if you or a loved one show any symptoms of the DTs, seek emergency treatment because symptoms can get worse.

Symptoms of delirium tremens include:

  • Fever
  • Extreme agitation
  • Seizures
  • Extreme confusion
  • Hallucinations (feeling, seeing, or hearing things that aren't there)
  • High blood pressure

Hospitals and detox centers have experienced staff who are familiar with these symptoms and have the tools to provide appropriate treatment.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Timeline

The timeline and severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms depends on a variety of factors, including the amount of alcohol a person has been consuming, frequency of drinking, other health conditions, as well as whether they use other substances in addition to alcohol.

Some symptoms may occur on the following timeline:

  • Six to 12 hours: Symptoms such as tremors, sweating, nausea, vomiting, hypertension, and/or increased heart rate may arise.
  • 12 to 24 hours: For those who experience hallucinations (a severe symptom of alcohol withdrawal), they may occur in this time frame.
  • 24 to 48 hours: For those who experience seizures, they may occur during this time period; if they do, seek immediate medical attention.
  • 48 to 72 hours: Delirium tremens may occur during this time period (only in extreme cases of withdrawal).

How Long Do Withdrawal Symptoms Last?

With mild to moderate alcohol withdrawal, a person may see symptoms resolve in about two to seven days. However, those who drink more excessively may experience symptoms that last weeks or even months.


Alcohol withdrawal is primarily diagnosed with a history and physical exam and often include blood tests to rule out other medical issues. Your doctor will look for physical signs and symptoms such as:

  • Tremors in your hands
  • Fast heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Dilated pupils
  • Fever
  • Fast breathing

Your doctor may also use the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol (CIWA-Ar) scale to assess how severe your symptoms are. This scale uses 10 questions to measure the following symptoms:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tremor
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Tactile disturbances, which are abnormal feelings in, on, or underneath the skin
  • Auditory disturbances, which involve hearing
  • Visual disturbances
  • Headache
  • Confusion


Treatment will depend on the severity of symptoms.

Mild to Moderate Symptoms

If you have mild to moderate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, you may be able to withdraw at home, but you need to have someone stay with you to make sure your symptoms don't get worse. You may need to see your doctor on a daily basis until you are stabilized as well.

Your doctor may prescribe a benzodiazepine sedative such as Ativan (lorazepam), Valium (diazepam), or Klonopin (clonazepam), to help you get through the early days of withdrawal. You will probably be tested for other medical problems that are related to your alcohol use, and will likely receive counseling regarding your alcohol use.

Moderate to Severe Symptoms

If your symptoms are moderate to severe, you will likely need to be hospitalized. Your vital signs will be monitored, you will have blood tests, and you may have intravenous (IV) fluids to prevent dehydration. Your doctor may also use the IV to give you medications to help you get through the symptoms of withdrawal or to treat seizures or other complications.

Long-Term Treatment

No matter how severe or mild your symptoms, the best long-term treatment is to stop drinking completely, especially when you've already gone through withdrawal. To that end, you'll need to make sure that you're living in an environment that's supportive to refraining from alcohol use.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


The majority of people experience a full recovery from alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Some people continue to have disruptive symptoms known as post-acute withdrawal for months such as difficulty sleeping, fatigue, mood swings, and fatigue. A small percentage of people die from delirium tremens.

If you have underlying medical conditions, you continue to drink heavily, and/or your organs are damaged, your recovery will be more complicated. Heavy drinking damages your organs and can lead to heart disease, liver disease, and nervous system problems, so it's important to get help and treatment if you're having a hard time abstaining from using alcohol.

Predicting Withdrawal Symptoms

You may be wondering how severe your withdrawal symptoms could be if you quit drinking. The answer to this question will depend upon many factors—your size, age, gender, drinking habits, and genetics, among others. You can get a good idea of your risk level, however, by taking a quick quiz about your symptoms.

The test is completely confidential and anonymous; your results are not recorded, are available only to you, and you are not asked for any personally identifying information. It can also help if you've recently stopped drinking and aren't sure how serious your withdrawal symptoms are.

Note: This quiz is not intended as a substitute for a professional medical evaluation. It should only be used as a guide to determining if your alcohol withdrawal symptoms might suggest that you should seek medical attention before you attempt to quit drinking. When answering the questions, be honest with yourself. You're the only one who will see the results of your test.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Alcohol withdrawal.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dietary guidelines for alcohol.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Excessive alcohol use and risks to women's health.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol use and your health.

  5. Mirijello A, D'Angelo C, Ferrulli A, et al. Identification and management of alcohol withdrawal syndromeDrugs. 2015;75(4):353-365. doi:10.1007/s40265-015-0358-1

  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Delirium tremens.

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.