Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Irregular Heartbeat?

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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What Does an Irregular Heartbeat During Alcohol Withdrawal Mean?

Is it normal for alcohol withdrawal to cause an irregular heartbeat? With alcohol withdrawal being linked to many different symptoms and side effects, people are often quick to dismiss heart irregularities as being “normal” parts of the detoxification process. However, it’s important to understand what’s to be expected versus what should be viewed as a cause for alarm. Here’s what you need to know about alcohol withdrawal and an irregular heartbeat.

What Happens to the Body During Alcohol Withdrawal?

People who stop drinking after weeks, months, or years of heavy alcohol consumption are likely to experience something called alcohol withdrawal. Even just cutting back on your alcohol consumption significantly can send the body into alcohol withdrawal. While it can be impossible to predict who will experience alcohol withdrawal, it is known that long-term and binge drinking can increase a person’s risk for experiencing withdrawal. 

The best piece of advice that people can get as they contemplate sobriety is to assume that they will experience withdrawal symptoms. This mindset allows you to properly prepare by putting yourself in a safe, monitored environment where any unexpected developments can be handled. It’s also helpful to know about the common symptoms to expect if you do experience alcohol withdrawal. These are considered relatively “normal” alcohol withdrawal symptoms as long as they remain mild:

  • Anxiety
  • Shaky hands
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating

Why does alcohol withdrawal happen? Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It slows down brain and nerve function. As you continue to consume heavy amounts of alcohol on a daily basis, your central nervous system begins to become dependent on alcohol. In response to the depressive effect of alcohol, your body actually works harder to keep your brain and nerves active and awake during the course of daily life.

When alcohol levels suddenly dip, your brain and central nervous system are jolted. Your body can’t adjust to the change rapidly enough. As a result, your body continues to operate in a compensatory state of increased energy output even though the depressive substance is no longer there to counterbalance the efforts. This creates withdrawal symptoms. 

Is an Irregular Heartbeat a Normal Symptom of Withdrawal?

Some people do experience an irregular heartbeat while going through alcohol withdrawal. However, the fact that this can happen does not mean that an irregular heartbeat should be considered a normal withdrawal symptom. Roughly 3% to 5% of people who experience withdrawal will exhibit cardiovascular symptoms that could indicate that something dangerous is happening. 

When individuals experience irregular heartbeat as part of alcohol withdrawal, this typically means that they have veered into a more advanced state of withdrawal called delirium tremens (DT). A racing heartbeat is one of the telltale signs of DT. Other signs include:

  • Sudden and severe confusion
  • Stupor
  • Changes in mental capacity
  • Deep sleep lasting for more than a day
  • High blood pressure
  • Hallucinations 
  • Fever
  • Heavy sweating
  • High agitation
  • Body tremors
  • Unexplained fear
  • Bursts of energy
  • Extreme restlessness
  • Sensitivity to light, touch, or sound
  • Whole-body seizures 

Delirium tremens symptoms typically show up anywhere from 48 to 96 hours after a person stops drinking. Unlike ordinary alcohol withdrawal symptoms, DT symptoms should not be self-treated. Someone who is experiencing DT requires immediate medical attention. 

The Risk of Arrhythmia

When a person experiences a fast or irregular heartbeat after beginning withdrawal from alcohol, this could be a sign of something called an arrhythmia. Arrhythmias are known complications of delirium tremens. 

It’s normal for a person’s heart rate to be irregular from time to time. For example, heart rates vary based on whether a person is doing intense physical activity or resting. It’s also fairly common to notice that your heart has skipped a beat every once in a while. However, an irregular heartbeat in the context of alcohol withdrawal should be a cause for alarm.

An irregular heartbeat means that your heart is not pumping enough blood through your body. In addition to noticeably feeling that your heart rate is irregular, you may also notice the following side effects:

  • Pounding in the chest
  • Pressure or pain in the chest
  • Dizziness
  • Cold sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Anxiety
  • Fainting 
  • Fatigue 

An arrhythmia can also lead to physical collapse or cardiac arrest. During cardiac arrest, the heart suddenly stops beating. Unfortunately, cardiac arrest can lead to death if it is not treated immediately. All of this highlights the importance of taking all heart-related symptoms that are experienced during withdrawal from alcohol seriously.

According to researchers, atrial fibrillation is the most common arrhythmia associated with alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Also known as AFib, atrial fibrillation occurs when the upper chambers in the heart called the atria begin to beat chaotically and irregularly. During an arrhythmia, the atria will beat out of sync with the lower chambers, which are known as the ventricles. While the typical resting heart rate in a healthy person is between 60 and 100 beats per minute, a person with AFib may experience a heart rate that ranges from 100 to 175 beats per minute. 

A heartbeat that is too fast is called tachycardia. In order to be diagnosed with tachycardia, the heart rate must be greater than 100 beats per minute. However, not all irregular heartbeats are faster. When the heart rate dips to a rate of less than 60 beats per minute, this type of irregular heartbeat is called bradycardia.

Why an Irregular Heartbeat During Withdrawal Should Be Taken Seriously

One of the reasons why medical professionals and researchers resoundingly recommend medically supervised detoxification programs for managing alcohol withdrawal is that proper care can help patients safely manage what would otherwise be life-threatening symptoms. Without proper monitoring and intervention, an irregular heartbeat could lead to a cardiac event.

Special Caution for People With Existing Risk Factors

Some people live with existing risk factors that make them especially vulnerable to developing arrhythmias. Older adults are more likely to experience arrhythmias than younger people. However, teens and young adults with either diagnosed or undiagnosed congenital heart defects are also at high risk.

A person’s family history and genetics can make them more vulnerable to developing arrhythmia. Having a parent, sibling, or other close relative with arrhythmia can increase a person’s risk. Of course, drinking alcohol regularly can increase someone’s risk of arrhythmia as well. The same is true of the use of amphetamines and other illegal drugs. Additionally, prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, and antibiotics can increase arrhythmia risks for some people. Some underlying health conditions that can increase a person’s risk of developing arrhythmia include:

  • Diseases of the heart or blood vessels
  • Kidney disease
  • Lung diseases
  • Obesity
  • Sleep apnea
  • Unbalanced thyroid hormones
  • Viral infection

Having a preexisting condition that increases your risk of developing arrhythmia, in general, doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will experience an irregular heartbeat during alcohol withdrawal. However, knowing about your risk factors is important. This is information that should be shared with healthcare and treatment providers. 

Irregular heartbeat is not a normal symptom of alcohol withdrawal. However, if you experience any kind of heart irregularity while you’re either drinking alcohol or going through alcohol withdrawal, this could be a sign of an arrhythmia that could be a precursor to a serious cardiovascular event. The bottom line is that heart-related symptoms tied to alcohol usage should never be ignored. 

Getting Help to Take the First Steps in Alcohol Recovery

If you’re concerned about the amount of alcohol that you consume, you may be struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD). If you’re concerned about the drinking habits of someone in your life, it’s possible that the alarming behaviors you’re witnessing are signs of AUD. AUD is a medical condition that’s characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use in the face of adverse consequences affecting a person’s social life, career, or health. Some situations or scenarios that may indicate AUD include:

  • Drinking more than intended
  • Drinking for a longer period than intended
  • Feeling like you can’t stop whenever you want
  • Spending a significant portion of your time drinking
  • Being ill from drinking
  • Constantly experiencing hangovers and other adverse effects
  • Being preoccupied with getting your next drink
  • Struggling to complete responsibilities or duties because of drinking
  • Giving up on things you like to make more time for drinking
  • Being in risky situations caused by drinking
  • Drinking after it causes you to feel depressed or anxious
  • Blacking out
  • Noticing that you need to drink more to get the desired effects
  • Noticing that alcohol doesn’t affect you as much as it once did
  • Feeling physically ill when stopping or reducing alcohol consumption 

 

The term alcohol use disorder encompasses alcoholism, alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and other terms that might be more familiar to people. Recent government surveys show that 28.6 million adults ages 18 and older in the United States are impacted by AUD. Additionally, 753,000 kids between the ages of 12 and 17 have AUD.

Alcohol Awareness

Many people with questions about alcohol usage don’t know where to turn for answers and support. This can be an uncomfortable topic to bring up with a primary care provider. In many cases, people are simply looking for confidential resources that provide information in a caring, pressure-free setting. That’s precisely why so many people turn to our hotline, AlcoholAwareness.org. This is a free alcoholism hotline, support group locator, and general resource that can be accessed 24/7. What makes this hotline unique is that it’s operated by people who understand the struggle. Simply dial (855) 955-0771 to get support.

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