HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol

The Odds Of Going Through Alcohol Withdrawal

What is the likelihood that you will go through life-threatening alcohol withdrawal if you suddenly stop drinking? The more that you drink per day and the more consecutive days that you drink, the more likely you are to go through alcohol withdrawal. If you never drink two days in a row you will not go through alcohol withdrawal. Drinking every night increases your chances of undergoing withdrawal. And drinking both morning and night every day of the week increases the odds of going through withdrawal even more.

Women are more sensitive to the negative effects of alcohol than are men. If you are a woman of average weight and you have been drinking 6 standard drinks a day every day for a month then you have about a fifty-fifty chance of going through minor withdrawal, but it probably won't be life threatening. On the other hand a woman who has been drinking 11 standard drinks a day for a month has about a fifty-fifty chance of going through major life threatening withdrawal. If you have been drinking a shorter period of time then you will have to have drunk more per day to be in danger of withdrawal. A woman who has 8 standard drinks per day every day for a week has about a fifty-fifty chance of having minor withdrawal whereas a woman who drinks around 15 standard drinks a day everyday for a week has about a fifty-fifty chance of having major withdrawal. This is illustrated graphically in Figure 1. There is little chance of withdrawal for anyone who has been drinking for less than three days in a row. See our web page What Is Alcohol Withdrawal for the distinction between major and minor alcohol withdrawal, and see the page The Standard Drink for the definition of a standard drink. Just for reference, a fifth of whiskey contains 17 standard drinks.

Men have to drink more than women to get withdrawal syndrome. If you are a man of average weight and you drink 8 standard drinks a day for a month you are in danger of minor withdrawal symptoms. If you drink 13 a day for a month then you have about a fifty-fifty chance of having major life threatening withdrawals. Drinking 10 a day for a week will lead to minor withdrawal and 18 a day for a week to major life-threatening withdrawal as illustrated in Figure 2.

If you have any reason at all to believe that you might undergo life-threatening major withdrawal when you quit drinking then it is essential that you either go to a medical detox or that you taper off as discussed in our web page How To Taper Off Alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal can kill. If you start getting shaky hands or a racing heart do not ignore it--take steps to taper off! If you want to avoid having alcohol withdrawal please visit our web page How To Prevent Alcohol Withdrawal.

The numbers of drinks in Figure 1 and figure 2 are ballpark guesstimates based on my experience with alcohol and with heavy drinkers and with my investigation of the best sources available on the topic. No one has experimentally studied how many drinks per day for a month will lead to life threatening withdrawal in a human being because such experiments could never pass an ethics review board. So in lieu of that we must make a guess based on the best data which is available to us. And I can guarantee that Figure 1 and figure 2 are definitely within the ballpark. If anything my estimates are on the conservative side since it is better to be safe than to be sorry.

There are any number of scare web sites out there which deliberately exaggerate the likelihood that you will undergo life-threatening alcohol withdrawal. It is profitable for alcohol treatment centers to use scare tactics and tell you that you will die unless you enter their program. We at HAMS have no reason to scare you or to do anything except to tell you the God's honest truth about alcohol withdrawal.

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