Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Heart Palpitations?

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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Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms: Heart Palpitations

Millions of Americans suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD). Although many can successfully get treatment for their addiction and stay sober, others believe that they can stop drinking on their own. In reality, quitting alcohol cold turkey is not only impossible, but it’s also dangerous; the result is a slew of unpleasant and sometimes life-threatening alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

While not everyone will go through the same withdrawal symptoms, almost everyone who quits alcohol experiences some cardiovascular symptoms, including a racing heartbeat, or tachycardia, and an abnormal heart rhythm, or arrhythmia. Heart palpitations can range from mild to severe, but they are always unpleasant. 

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is characterized by a variety of both physical and mental symptoms that begin when a person abruptly stops drinking alcohol after heavy use. Over time, your system becomes used to a certain amount of alcohol and acclimates to it to the point where it feels normal. When you suddenly stop drinking, your body has to adjust to being without a substance that it has become reliant on, and the physical manifestations of these changes are withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms from suddenly stopping can range from mild to severe depending on the length of time you were drinking and how much alcohol you consumed.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal depend on the person; heavy drinking for a longer time may result in more severe symptoms and more of them while a shorter period of alcohol intake can produce fewer, milder symptoms. Some of the most common include the following:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Faster heart rate
  • Hallucinations
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting

When withdrawal symptoms are severe and the person doesn’t seek treatment, they could also experience delirium tremens, seizures, and even death.

Why Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Heart Palpitations?

It’s not a mystery as to why heart palpitations are one of the most common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol is a depressant, so it affects the nervous system and changes the way the heart functions. Typically, while consuming alcohol as an alcoholic, the heart’s electrical signals slow down, but the opposite happens when you abruptly stop drinking. Your heart tries to readjust to the body’s lack of alcohol, which can cause heart palpitations. This feels like a racing heart or fluttering inside your chest.

Heart palpitations caused by alcohol withdrawal may vary in different people based on their unique situation. Some may have mild, infrequent palpitations while others may have them more intensely and for longer periods throughout the day. In most cases, although distressing or annoying, heart palpitations are harmless. They should pass over time when your system becomes accustomed to not having alcohol.

In certain situations, heart palpitations that accompany alcohol withdrawal may be serious. If they are accompanied by other symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, or fainting, it’s best to immediately seek medical attention. These side effects could signify a deeper problem such as a heart attack.

When Heart Palpitations Are Cause for Concern

Alcohol consumption typically affects the heart and causes heart palpitations. While most instances are considered harmless, people with alcohol use disorder and even those who consume alcohol moderately can suffer heart-related issues. Drinking can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat, which can cause palpitations. The condition also increases the risk of heart failure by 300% and stroke by 500%.

What Is the Timeline of Alcohol Withdrawal?

There are three stages of alcohol withdrawal in terms of the severity of symptoms that can range from mild to moderate to severe. Not every person who goes through alcohol withdrawal experiences all three stages. The first stage involves mild symptoms that typically start six to 12 hours after you stop consuming alcohol. These are usually similar to a hangover. You may experience headaches, loss of appetite, insomnia, heart palpitations, upset stomach, shaking, and anxiety.

Stage two of alcohol withdrawal consists of moderate symptoms. At this point, you can experience symptoms from the first stage as well as others. Those symptoms usually involve moderate tremors, anxiety, fast and shallow breathing, fever, confusion, excessive sweating, faster heart rate, and higher blood pressure.

Stage three of alcohol withdrawal is serious and involves severe side effects. Symptoms from stage two withdrawal occur along with moderate to severe tremors. If a person progresses to this stage, they can enter complicated alcohol withdrawal, which can result in even more severe symptoms. One of the most serious is delirium tremens, which can be life-threatening. Delirium tremens can result in the following effects:

  • Agitation
  • Arrhythmia
  • Dangerously high blood pressure
  • Extreme confusion
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations
  • Rapid mood changes
  • Seizures
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, or touch
  • Severe tremors

Once a person experiences delirium tremens, they need prompt medical attention. Without treatment, the condition can be fatal. Hospitalization is necessary to get the symptoms of delirium tremens under control.

When to See a Doctor for Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal may seem simply unpleasant at first, but it can get worse. Once symptoms progress into the second and especially third stage, it can be life-threatening. It’s unsafe to try to quit drinking alcohol cold turkey. Anyone experiencing alcohol withdrawal should seek treatment from a doctor or go to the nearest emergency room. Even when symptoms are mild, it is not a good idea to detox at home without the help of a medical professional because your symptoms could escalate without warning.

Once you seek medical attention, the doctor will examine you and ask questions about your history of drinking. They may also take your blood for testing to see the level of alcohol in your system. Based on your symptoms, drinking history, and test results, they can make a diagnosis. If you receive a definitive diagnosis, the doctor will recommend the appropriate treatment, including medications that can help ease your symptoms. 

How Is Alcohol Withdrawal Treated?

If you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal along with heart palpitations and other side effects, you need treatment. Medical supervision is crucial because severe symptoms like delirium tremens can last for weeks. Once you have been diagnosed with alcohol withdrawal, you may be recommended to enter either inpatient or outpatient treatment. Which one is more appropriate for you depends on your situation and the stage of alcohol withdrawal that you are experiencing.

Inpatient treatment is more intensive and requires you to stay at a rehab facility or hospital on a 24/7 basis. While there, you will be closely monitored by medical staff who can assist you in any way you need. If you are in a later stage of alcohol withdrawal and experiencing delirium tremens, inpatient treatment is a must; the best option is to be admitted to a hospital.

During your treatment, you may be administered sedatives to ease you through your symptoms. Medical staff will monitor your heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature and help manage your heart palpitations. You may be given fluids intravenously so that you stay hydrated during this time. Many people who are going through severe withdrawal become dehydrated because they are vomiting and experiencing diarrhea. 

If your alcohol withdrawal symptoms are milder, you may fare well in an outpatient treatment facility. In this situation, you can resume your regular daily activities such as working, attending classes, and caring for your family while doing your treatment several hours per day. However, outpatient treatment for alcohol withdrawal requires having a trusted family member or friend stay with you so that they can monitor you.

While undergoing outpatient treatment for alcohol withdrawal, you are administered medication to help ease you through your symptoms. Medications that are considered safe and helpful include benzodiazepines, a class of sedatives, naltrexone, and even vitamins. Blood tests are taken periodically to measure the levels of alcohol and determine whether you have experienced any other health issues. Outpatient treatment also includes counseling to help you get the support you need to stay sober.

Can You Have Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal at Home?

If you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal heart palpitations and other typical symptoms, you might wonder if you can have treatment at home. This is not advised because of the dangers associated with alcohol withdrawal. Most people can manage outpatient treatment with mild symptoms, but detoxing and entering treatment completely from home are not recommended. Having doctors and other medical professionals on hand to monitor you in the event of worsening symptoms or even complications that can be life-threatening is important so that you stay safe.

What Is the Prognosis for Alcohol Withdrawal and Heart Palpitations?

Your prognosis for alcohol withdrawal and accompanying symptoms like heart palpitations depends on various factors. One of the most important is how well you can refrain from consuming any more alcohol. If you’re able to stop drinking for good after your treatment, you have a good chance of a successful recovery. At the same time, if your withdrawal symptoms were in the second or third stage, you might have some or all of those symptoms remaining with you for months after your treatment.

As for heart palpitations related to alcohol withdrawal, they should subside over time. As your body readjusts to no longer having alcohol, your heart rate will re-regulate, and the palpitations will happen less and less. Eventually, they should stop.

Heart palpitations can be alarming even if you don’t suffer from alcohol withdrawal. However, if you are going through alcohol withdrawal, palpitations are one of the many symptoms that you may experience. However, you do not have to go through detox and treatment alone. There are addiction specialists and medical professionals who are here to guide you every step of the way. AlcoholAwareness.org is a wonderful resource for finding help and support.

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