Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Hallucinations?

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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Can You Hallucinate During Alcohol Withdrawal?

During alcohol withdrawal, it is possible to experience a severe side effect known as delirium tremens. This typically happens when someone has a more severe addiction. If you experience this side effect, you may hallucinate and see things that aren’t really there. Because delirium tremens can be a potentially life-threatening condition, it is important to get professional medical care if you are experiencing hallucinations. 

Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Hallucinations?

When you go through the withdrawal process, you may experience something known as alcohol withdrawal delirium (AWD). This is also known as delirium tremens. AWD generally happens to someone who drinks heavily after they completely stop drinking in a short amount of time. It is more likely to occur if you have a head injury or an infection. 

Roughly 50% of people who have an alcohol addiction will experience some type of withdrawal symptom when they stop using alcohol. Out of this percentage, 3-5% will also suffer from AWD symptoms. Other than hallucinations, AWD can cause confusion and seizures. 

When you drink, alcohol excites the nervous system. Over time, your central nervous system adjusts to having alcohol present. Alcohol can also change how neurotransmitters function in your brain. Your body basically develops a dependence on alcohol. 

Drinking suppresses your neurotransmitters, which is why you feel relaxed when you drink. After you stop drinking, your neurotransmitters will remain overactive because they are used to being extremely active to counteract your alcohol consumption. As your neurotransmitters and nervous system struggle to readjust, you will experience alcohol withdrawal. 

Other than auditory hallucinations, you can experience fear and paranoid delusions. While visual hallucinations are less common, they can also occur. For the majority of people, visual and auditory hallucinations will go away within the first six months of their sobriety. 

The Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal on the Body

Initially, alcohol use disorder can be mild. You may initially struggle to control the amount you drink. Over time, you may devote an increasing amount of your time to drinking. You may ignore social activities, beloved hobbies, and work obligations so that you can use alcohol.

When you have an addiction, you may use alcohol in unsafe situations. Even though you know alcohol is causing major issues in your life, you can’t cut down on how much you use. You may feel a strong craving to drink if you try to stop. 

Because you have a tolerance to alcohol, you may need to drink more to achieve the same effects. If you try to stop drinking, you may go through withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms can affect your mind and body. 

The Mental Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal

The severity of withdrawal is directly linked to how much you normally drink and how long you have been drinking. If you have a severe addiction, you are more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking all at once. These symptoms may involve a range of psychological and physical side effects. 

For example, you may feel jumpy or struggle to think clearly. You might experience anxiety, fatigue, or depression. Other than rapid mood swings, you may suffer from shakiness, bad dreams, and irritability. 

Delirium tremens is a severe symptom of alcohol withdrawal. It typically starts within two to four days after your last drink. In some cases, it can take up to 10 days for this symptom to appear. Often, delirium tremens will cause heavy sweating, chest pain, tremors, dehydration, confusion, fever, and nausea. 

If you have delirium tremens, you may experience hallucinations. You may also pass out or have a seizure. Because delirium tremens can cause your breathing, blood circulation, and temperature to quickly shift, it can be a life-threatening condition. If you experience hallucinations or other symptoms of delirium tremens, it is important to seek medical care right away. 

The Physical Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal

In addition to mental effects, alcohol withdrawal can cause a range of physical effects as well. These physical effects can start as soon as six hours after your last drink. Delirium tremens and other severe side effects can start just 48 to 72 hours after you quit drinking. 

Physically, you may experience a loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. You may struggle to fall asleep because of insomnia. In addition, your skin may become pale and clammy. 

As your body goes through withdrawal symptoms, you may suffer from headaches and high blood pressure. Your skin may become sweaty. In addition, you may suffer from heart palpitations or a rapid heart rate. 

The Timeline of Withdrawal Symptoms

The timeline of withdrawal symptoms depends on the severity of your alcohol use disorder. Medical professionals separate symptoms into mild, moderate, and severe withdrawal. You may or may not go through all of these stages. 

Mild withdrawal typically begins just six to 12 hours after your last drink. You may experience an upset stomach, decreased appetite, headache, insomnia, or heart palpitations. These symptoms are similar to a hangover, but they will last longer than just 24 hours. 

Moderate withdrawal includes many of the same symptoms, but it also encompasses confusion, fever, and other symptoms. You may suffer from a fast heart rate, high systolic blood pressure, or excessive sweating. In addition to moderate anxiety, you may develop shallow breathing. 

Severe withdrawal symptoms are similar to moderate withdrawal. The main difference is in the severity of the symptoms. For example, you may experience severe anxiety. If you don’t get help during this stage of withdrawal, you can end up developing complicated alcohol withdrawal. 

Complicated alcohol withdrawal can start within eight to 24 hours after you take your last drink. It can include symptoms like delirium tremens, hallucinations, and seizures. If you are going to develop seizures in the near future, you may notice tremors, overactive reflexes, fever, and other precursor symptoms. Because these can be life-threatening side effects, it is important to seek help right away. 

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

Depending on the severity of your alcohol use disorder, alcohol withdrawal can last for different amounts of time. For most people, symptoms will be the worst about 24 to 72 hours after you stop drinking. While you will normally start feeling better after just five to seven days, you may experience mood swings, fatigue, and sleep issues for several weeks or months after you stop drinking. 

The Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use

While dealing with hallucinations and delirium tremens is unenjoyable, becoming sober can help you avoid the long-term effects of alcohol use. For example, long-term alcohol use can lead to irregular heart rhythms and coronary artery disease. In fact, alcohol-related cardiomyopathy can occur, which involves the weakening of your heart muscle. 

Over the long run, alcohol consumption can also cause neurological changes. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or memory problems, alcohol consumption can worsen these conditions. In addition, alcohol can cause your hippocampus to shrink. 

Long-term alcohol use can cause liver disease, kidney issues, and pancreatic damage. Liver cancer and pancreatitis are more common in people who drink frequently. Because alcohol impacts your cardiovascular system, it can lead to reduced blood flow to your kidneys and kidney damage. 

Finally, alcohol use can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) issues because alcohol causes inflammation in the GI tract. This can lead to gastritis, which is an inflammation in your small intestine and stomach. Additionally, you are more likely to suffer from rectal and esophageal cancer. 

What Type of Treatment Is Available?

It is important to seek help in a professional treatment center. Alcohol withdrawal can lead to many uncomfortable and dangerous side effects. In a professional treatment center, medical professionals can monitor your symptoms and alleviate severe side effects. 

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment is a popular choice for people who are going through mild or moderate withdrawal symptoms. In an outpatient treatment center, you can access therapy programs and medical support during the day. At night, you will return home to sleep. 

When you enter the treatment center, medical staff will check you for co-occurring disorders. Then, they will treat you for these other conditions at the same time as you undergo treatment for your alcohol use disorder. Because many people use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for mental and physical conditions, treating co-occurring disorders can alleviate one potential relapse trigger.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment centers require clients to stay at the facility during the day and night. This is ideal for someone who is going through moderate to severe symptoms. If you are experiencing hallucinations, you should go to an inpatient treatment center for extra monitoring and medical support. Medical professionals can help with your recovery by administering fluids and monitoring your vital signs. If you need it, they can even administer medicine intravenously. 

Counseling

Counseling is another way you can get help during alcohol withdrawal. A counselor can help you learn how to cope with mental side effects. In addition, they can help with relapse prevention and resuming normal life after withdrawal is over. 

Medications for Alcohol Withdrawal

Depending on the treatment center, you may also receive medications during detox. For example, sedatives may be prescribed to help with agitation. If your symptoms are related to a vitamin deficiency, your doctor may prescribe a supplement. 

It is especially important to get medical care during detox because some detox symptoms can be caused by other medical problems. For example, a rapid heart rate could be an indication of a cardiovascular issue or an infection. Only a medical professional can diagnose liver failure, heart attacks, and other severe medical conditions that have symptoms similar to withdrawal side effects. 

Handling Hallucinations and Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal can cause hallucinations, seizures, and other severe side effects, but you can navigate all these issues with the right help. If you want to quit using alcohol, it is important to find professional support. Some of these side effects can have severe consequences, so you should only detox under medical supervision. With the right resources, such as our team at Alcohol Awareness, you can safely quit using alcohol and begin your long-term sobriety.

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