Coronavirus: alcohol withdrawal

If you are a heavy or dependent drinker it's important to be able to spot the signs of alcohol withdrawal to protect yourself during lockdown.

If you are drinking at high levels, you could be physically dependent on alcohol. This means your body will react negatively if you stop drinking alcohol. These reactions are alcohol withdrawal symptoms. They can be very dangerous, and even fatal.

During the lockdown it may be more difficult to buy and drink alcohol regularly, as the Government has advised us to go outside as little as possible. Many supermarkets have also been restricting the amount of each product we can buy to prevent stockpiling and panic-buying. All of this means that heavy drinkers could experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. It’s important to know the signs of alcohol withdrawal so that you can seek help urgently if you need it.

What should you look out for?

If, after a period of drinking, you experience any of the following symptoms, you may be dependent on alcohol and you should NOT suddenly stop drinking completely:

  • seizures (fits)
  • hand tremors (‘the shakes’)
  • sweating
  • seeing things that are not actually real (visual hallucinations)
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)

But you can still take control of your drinking. Speak to a GP who will be able to get help for you to reduce your drinking safely.

If you are experiencing severe symptoms, you should call 999 urgently.

Cutting down

You will need to be careful about cutting down if you regularly drink over 15 units of alcohol every day. This is around half a bottle of spirits, one and a half bottles of wine, 6 pints of beer, 3 cans of super-strength lager or 2 litres of strong cider.

You need to be particularly careful if you are drinking over 30 units every day. This is about the same as a bottle of spirits, three bottles of wine, 12 pints of beer, seven cans of super-strength lager or four litres of strong cider.

You can calculate how much you’re drinking by using our unit calculator.

If you fall into one of these categories, you should speak with your GP or local alcohol service before attempting to cut down. They may say that you need the support of a healthcare professional to cut down or stop drinking. If they say this, it is very important that you follow their advice.

If you need or would like support to cut down, that is still available even during lockdown. However, it might be delivered differently. You can ask your GP about this, or go straight to your local alcohol service.

Find out more about getting support

Protecting your health

There are other important things you can do to protect your health, whether you are being supported to cut down, cutting down independently or while you wait for this support.

What not to do

Don’t go cold turkey: This means stopping drinking suddenly and completely. This puts you at high risk of withdrawal symptoms. Instead, if a doctor or treatment professional has said that it is safe for you to do so, try to cut down very gradually each day or every few days.

Don’t drink all your daily or weekly alcohol in one go: Binge-drinking means you overload your body with lots of alcohol at once but you also have periods of having no alcohol in your body. This also increases your risk of getting withdrawal symptoms.

What to do

Improve your diet: It’s really important to make sure you get enough thiamine (vitamin B1) as heavy drinking can cause deficiency and lead to brain damage. Try to eat foods rich in B1 such as brown rice, brown bread, fish, meat and Marmite, or consider taking a multivitamin which includes B1. If you are in contact with your doctor they can prescribe you stronger B1 supplements if you need them.

Stay hydrated: Try to drink water and tea over coffee and fizzy drinks, especially energy drinks. Keeping hydrated with non-alcoholic drinks is important while you try to cut down.

Reach out: Whether you live alone or with others, you can ask trusted friends or family members to support you during this time. If you are self-isolating, try to get a loved one to check in with you regularly to provide this same support remotely.

Remember: Travelling for alcohol treatment or to buy alcohol is also recognised as essential and you won’t be penalised for doing this.

For more information on getting support with your drinking during the coronavirus outbreak visit the coronavirus hub.

Find support

Sources for more information

NHS Substance Misuse Provider Alliance have published advice on ‘COVID-19 & Alcohol Dependency: Looking After Yourself During Lockdown’.

Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust have set up the Down Your Drink website which takes you through the stages of cutting down and includes an area to keep a drinking diary.

Royal College of Psychiatrists have a ‘COVID-19: Alcohol’ webpage which includes advice on withdrawal symptoms and cutting down on your drinking.

Find your local alcohol service via the NHS directory.