AUSTIN (KXAN) — The holiday season is officially over. To start 2023 a little healthier, many folks commit to a dry January, meaning they pledge not to drink alcohol for the first month of the year. But for the people who have been steadily drinking over the last few weeks, is there a concern for alcohol withdrawal?

What is alcohol withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal occurs when a heavy drinker suddenly decreases their alcohol consumption or completely abstains.

“Over time, the brain compensates for the depressive effects of alcohol by functioning in a kind of hyperactive state. So when someone stops drinking, suddenly, the brain remains in that state, which causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms,” said Chelsea Cohen, a behavioral therapist at Ascension Medical Center.

These symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the alcohol dependency, Cohen said.

“Mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome are things like tremors or anxiety, insomnia, heart palpitations and headaches. Those typically occur anywhere from six to 12 hours after a person’s last drink,” she said.

Moderate to severe symptoms are more concerning. Results from this level of withdrawal can lead to seizures or a medical condition called Delirium Tremens, which can cause confusion, high blood pressure and hallucinations and can be fatal. 

Who is at risk of developing withdrawal symptoms? 

The larger the amount and the longer someone has been drinking can affect whether a person will have a withdrawal and the severity of the symptoms, Cohen said.

“For women, that would be more than three standard drinks in a day or seven drinks per week,” she said. “For men, more than four drinks on any day, or 14 drinks per week,” she continued. 

Some health conditions also increase your chances of having withdrawal, such as having an eating disorder or seizure disorder, heart or liver disease, or being older. 

Is “dry January” after weeks of heavy drinking cause for concern?

“The practice of abstaining from alcohol during the first month of the year has gained popularity in recent years as a way to sort of reset one’s relationship with alcohol after the holidays,” Cohen said.   

“Most people who abstain from alcohol for the month will not develop any alcohol withdrawal symptoms,” she continued.

But people who drink regularly — those who have developed a tolerance to the substance and a physiological dependence — may be at risk of having alcohol withdrawal symptoms. 

 “Many people don’t realize that alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be medically dangerous,” Cohen said.

Alcohol withdrawal can vary depending on a variety of factors. Because of this, Cohen advised people to be transparent with their doctors about how much they are drinking and if they plan to stop. 

“Your doctor may recommend completing a short-term detox in a monitored setting or prescribed medication before you stop drinking to cope with the symptoms,” Cohen said.  

“People can always call Ascension Seton Behavioral Health Care and speak to one of our qualified behavioral health navigators who can help you connect to resources that may support a safe and effective dry January,” Cohen said. 

Is dry January a good idea?

If people are ensuring taking a break from booze is safe for them to do so, Cohen said it can be a good opportunity for people to take a step back from their drinking and observe the intensity of their urges and the potential benefits of sobriety.

“The environment is kind of set up to support you in that more of your friends and family members are more likely to be abstaining from use as well,” Cohen added.