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.

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.

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?

Stopping drinking suddenly can be very dangerous, and can even kill you, if you are dependent on alcohol. 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 or go alcohol-free. 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.

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.

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

Find support