Does Alcohol Detox Cause Diarrhea?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Is Diarrhea a Symptom of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal can be one of the most challenging experiences a person ever faces. The physical and mental struggles associated with withdrawal can be enough to leave someone who is motivated to change feeling helpless. People who are going through alcohol withdrawal can experience a wide range of symptoms that impact the nervous system and digestive system. While alcohol withdrawal is associated with a long list of unpleasant symptoms, you may be wondering if diarrhea is something that people normally experience during withdrawal. 

So, the question is, does alcohol withdrawal cause diarrhea? To answer this question, it’s important to understand how digestive health is connected to alcohol use disorder (AUD). Here’s what you need to know about withdrawal and diarrhea. 

Understanding What Happens to Your Body During Alcohol Withdrawal

Withdrawal refers to a series of symptoms that may occur when a person who has been drinking too much alcohol regularly suddenly stops drinking alcohol. Withdrawal is commonly experienced when a person stops drinking “cold turkey.” It can also occur when a person just drinks less alcohol than usual. 

While we typically associate alcohol withdrawal with an attempt at sobriety or detoxing, a person can involuntarily experience withdrawal if alcohol becomes inaccessible due to location, finances, physical inability to leave the house to obtain alcohol, or some other situation that can cut off access to a person’s usual daily alcohol intake level. 

Is Diarrhea a Symptom of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Yes, diarrhea can certainly be one of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. However, not everyone who experiences withdrawal will also experience diarrhea. The full range of potential symptoms can also include:

  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • High blood pressure

 

When Does Diarrhea Happen During the Withdrawal Process?

For people who experience diarrhea as a withdrawal symptom, telltale cramping and a sense of urgency about getting to the bathroom usually kick in several hours after you have had your last drink. Once diarrhea begins, it may get worse as the level of alcohol in your blood decreases. Diarrhea may persist for several days while you’re in a state of withdrawal from alcohol. 

Why Do You Get Diarrhea When You Stop Drinking?

As stated earlier, not everyone who stops drinking will experience diarrhea as a withdrawal symptom. Everything from your diet to your digestive health could influence whether or not diarrhea becomes one of your withdrawal symptoms.

However, most alcohol withdrawal symptoms generally have the same underlying cause. When the body becomes reliant on alcohol after prolonged use, it begins to “need” alcohol to function. The absence of alcohol from your system shocks the body into a state of sickness. 

What Does Diarrhea During Alcohol Withdrawal Feel Like?

Diarrhea means having loose, watery stool during a bowel movement. Most people who develop diarrhea during alcohol withdrawal begin to experience cramping after going a few hours without alcohol. They may experience discomfort and bloating for a while before they need to have an actual bowel movement. 

Diarrhea symptoms that accompany withdrawal can range from mild to severe. When a person experiences mild diarrhea, they may have just a few loose bowel movements. While their stools are looser than usual, they aren’t necessarily going more frequently than usual. 

When a person experiences severe diarrhea during withdrawal, they may experience a loose, watery bowel movement every 20 to 30 minutes. A sense of urgency to get to a toilet may come on suddenly without warning throughout the day. 

In addition to making you feel uncomfortable, diarrhea can be dangerous if it is severe enough to cause dehydration. While deciphering between withdrawal symptoms and dehydration symptoms can be challenging when you’re in the midst of the withdrawal process, it’s important to know these signs of dehydration if you are experiencing acute diarrhea:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Dry mouth 
  • Dry, shiny skin
  • Not urinating
  • Releasing dark-colored urine
  • Feeling weak, dizzy or lightheaded
  • Extreme fatigue

Why Stomach Pain, Nausea and Diarrhea Can Be Severe During Withdrawal

Excessive drinking can gradually erode the lining of the stomach to cause a condition known as alcohol gastritis. People with alcohol gastritis generally have stomachs and digestive systems that are highly sensitive. When a person who has developed alcohol gastritis begins to experience withdrawal-related diarrhea, it can be far more painful and uncomfortable. 

It’s also possible to notice blood in your feces, which is the result of the stomach lining bleeding.

Damage and symptoms associated with alcohol gastritis can begin to resolve once you’ve stopped drinking alcohol. However, there is little you can do to reduce the inflammation and pain that often accompany diarrhea when you’re already suffering from alcohol gastritis during withdrawal. 

To help provide some relief, some care providers will prescribe patients with alcohol gastritis antibiotics, antacids, histamine or proton-pump inhibitors. It’s important to be honest with a care provider about your alcohol consumption before seeking out treatment to avoid any complications that could be caused by mixing medications with alcohol.

Is Diarrhea Worse With Alcohol Withdrawal if You’re a Heavy Drinker?

Yes. Duration and quantity are two of the main factors when it comes to how severe a person’s withdrawal symptoms will be. Of course, a person’s health history and physiology can also play roles in determining what the withdrawal experience will be like for any individual. 

Generally, withdrawal symptoms are more severe for someone who has consumed large amounts of alcohol for a long time. That means that you may be more likely to experience diarrhea as a symptom of alcohol withdrawal if you have a history of heavy alcohol consumption compared to someone who has less of a dependency. 

Ways To Prevent Dehydration During Alcohol Withdrawal

In many cases, diarrhea during withdrawal is also accompanied by vomiting. This combination can quickly lead to severe dehydration. Here are some tips for preventing dehydration when you have diarrhea:

  • If possible, drink at least one cup of liquid every time you have a loose bowel movement.
  • Sip only a little bit of water at a time instead of chugging, to prevent you from throwing up.
  • If you can tolerate more water, increase intake slowly.
  • Drink room-temperature fluids to avoid shocking your sensitive stomach.
  • Drink coconut water or sports drinks to replenish the sodium, calcium, potassium and other electrolytes that your body is losing with each watery bowel movement.
  • Stick to bananas, rice, toast, oatmeal, apples and other bland, non-greasy foods that are gentle on the stomach by following the BRAT diet.
  • Avoid caffeine, dairy and artificial sweeteners.

When Should You See a Doctor About Diarrhea After You Stop Drinking?

Ideally, you won’t be attempting to detox from alcohol on your own. However, there are some red flags to know about if you’re in an unsupervised situation where diarrhea is beginning to worry you.

While diarrhea is considered a fairly common symptom of alcohol withdrawal, people who are experiencing diarrhea should not underestimate the serious risks involved with becoming dehydrated. Seek emergency medical attention if your diarrhea symptoms are accompanied by any of the following:

  • Inability to keep fluids down
  • A fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Acute diarrhea lasting for more than three days
  • Blood in diarrhea
  • No urination for 12 hours
  • Significant cramping or pain

Getting Help for Alcohol Withdrawal

Discussing the risks associated with experiencing diarrhea during alcohol withdrawal only highlights the importance of seeking help. In truth, alcohol withdrawal should be handled by staying at a medically supervised detox that provides you with access to a trained, licensed support staff. 

People who become physically dependent on alcohol often underestimate the profound impact that alcohol has had on their bodily health. While they may feel mentally prepared to detox from alcohol, the truth is that withdrawal symptoms can be unpredictable. It is easy to become completely overwhelmed by intense physical symptoms that render you completely helpless. 

Diarrhea during alcohol withdrawal can lead to extreme dehydration that can leave a person tired and weak. When combined with vomiting, seizures, rapid heart beat, hallucinations and other potential symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal, withdrawal-induced diarrhea can become very scary. It is possible to have life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. 

Where To Get Help With Alcohol Detox

If you want to avoid the uncertainty and danger that can go along with attempting to detox from alcohol alone at your home, it’s important to know that there are many alcohol-related resources out there. What’s more, asking for help doesn’t mean you have to instantly commit to one strategy for detoxing over another. Common options include:

  • Supervised detox
  • Medication-assisted detox
  • Supplement-assisted detox
  • Support groups
  • Inpatient rehab
  • Outpatient rehab 

Like all of your body’s organs and systems, your digestive system is likely to experience unpleasant symptoms almost immediately after you begin withdrawing from alcohol. If you’ve started to experience diarrhea after stopping alcohol or reducing your intake, you may be experiencing withdrawal-related diarrhea. Diarrhea can certainly be an unpleasant experience. However, it’s important to avoid letting fear of withdrawal symptoms prevent you from taking a major step toward recovery. 

Don’t let fears over unpleasant diarrhea or other common withdrawal symptoms stop you from reaching out for help! With the right supervision, alcohol withdrawal can be a safer, more comfortable experience. 

If you are struggling with alcohol, AlcoholAwarness.org is a free resource that provides access to local alcohol resources in your state. By calling our free alcoholism hotline at (855) 955-0771, you can be connected to resources or locate local support groups.

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