What you need to know
- if you are dependent on alcohol, stopping drinking suddenly can be life-threatening but you may be able to cut down gradually
- wherever possible, contact your local alcohol and drug treatment service for advice and support on cutting down
- you should not try to cut down without help from your local alcohol treatment service or your doctor if you are drinking more than 30 units a day, have epilepsy, unstable liver disease, or have had serious complications (for example seizures or delirium tremens) in the past when withdrawing
- if you drink less than 30 but more than 15 units a day and have not had serious withdrawal symptoms in the past, you can plan to cut down your drinking gradually at your own pace
- you will need to work out how much you drink and decide how much you will cut down by each day, and you will need to organize support from someone you trust. You can find information on how to do this below
- if any serious complications occur while you are cutting down your drinking, you or the person supporting you should call 999 immediately or seek help from A&E
- you can take steps to take care of your mental and physical health and wellbeing during this process – there are tips on doing this and contact details for helplines and online organizations which can offer support below
- if you are a parent or carer of a vulnerable adult, it is important that the people you care for are safe while you are going through this process. There is advice below on support for this
Who this advice is for
This advice is for people who are drinking daily at high levels and are dependent on alcohol.
During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, you might be feeling more anxious, and you may be drinking more than usual.
You might want to cut down or stop drinking to improve your health, or if you are unable to get a regular supply of alcohol. Wherever possible, contact your local alcohol and drug treatment service for advice and support on doing this.
This information may be updated in line with the changing situation.
Am I at risk of withdrawal symptoms?
You can ask yourself these questions to work out if you are at risk of withdrawal symptoms:
- do you drink over 15 units of alcohol every day? (half bottle of spirits, one and a half bottles of wine, 6 pints regular strength beer, 3 cans super lager or 2 liters of strong cider)
- have you had withdrawal symptoms in the past when stopping drinking?
- do you regularly drink alcohol soon after you get up to relieve shakes or sweats?
If you answered yes to any of these questions you may experience withdrawal symptoms, so you will need to plan if you want to stop or cut down your drinking.
Advice for people who drink more than 30 units a day
You should not try to stop drinking without help from your alcohol and drug treatment service or your doctor if:
- you drink more than 30 units a day (one bottle of spirits, 3 bottles of wine, 12 pints of normal strength beer, 7 cans of 9% super lager or 4 liters of strong cider)
- have epilepsy, unstable liver disease, have had seizures (fits), or have seen, heard or felt things that were not there (hallucinations or delirium tremens) when withdrawing from alcohol
Instead, try to drink steadily (without binges or days without alcohol) and contact your local alcohol and drug treatment service for advice and support. This information can be found on the NHS website or on your council’s website.
Advice for people who drink 15 to 30 units a day
If you drink less than 30 units a day, but above 15 units a day (half a bottle of spirits, one and a half bottles of wine, 6 pints of regular strength beer, 3 cans super lager or 2 liters of strong cider) and have not had serious withdrawal complications (for example seizures or delirium tremens) in the past, you can plan to cut down gradually to manage withdrawal symptoms.
Step 1: work out how much you drink
Work out how much you drink in a day – be honest!
Write down each drink you have when you have it and find out how many units it has in it. You can work it out with a unit calculator. Alternatively, the percentage of alcohol on the side of the bottle or can represents the number of units in a liter.
Step 2: Make a plan
Once you know how much you have been drinking, keep your drinking at that level for at least 3, and up to 7 days, before starting to cut down.
Ask a family member, friend, or alcohol worker to support you as you cut down. If you live alone, they should do this by phone or online during the COVID-19 outbreak. Make sure they have seen this information and keep in regular contact with them.
Try to space out your drinks, particularly in the middle of the day. Measure drinks using the same glass or measuring cup or ask a family member to do this for you.
Step 3: cut down gradually at your own pace
It’s important to cut down gradually at a pace that suits you but aims at cutting down by no more than 10% a day. If you are drinking more than 25 units a day, are over 65 or your general health is not good, you may need to cut down more slowly for example 10% every 4 days.
If you start to experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms (sweating, shaking anxiety, nausea), this means you are cutting down too rapidly. In that case, drink a steady amount for several days again, then cut down by smaller amounts over a longer period of time.
Watch out for the following serious complications
- symptoms worsening to the point of severe shaking and very heavy sweating
- seizures (fits)
- seeing, hearing or feeling things that are not there (hallucinations or delirium tremens)
- feeling confused about where you are, what time it is, who you are with
- poor coordination and unsteadiness on your feet
If any of these serious complications occur, you or those providing support should call 999 immediately or go to A&E for urgent medical help.
Taking care of your health and wellbeing
There are lots of things you can do to take care of your mental and physical health and wellbeing while you are cutting down your drinking.
- arrange regular phone contact with people supporting you and use organizations that offer online and telephone support (see additional information and support section, below)
- people often describe feeling frightened and alone when they stop drinking, so let others know how you feel and try to distract yourself with things that you enjoy
- sleep may remain a problem for a while. Keep a routine and be patient
- try to eat foods high in thiamine (B1), such as meat, fish, brown bread and rice and make sure you take your prescribed thiamine or ask the GP to prescribe this for you
- keep well-hydrated by drinking plenty of water
Advice for parents and carers who are cutting down on drinking
If you are on your own with children or are caring for a vulnerable adult, it’s important that they will be safe if you become too ill or feel unable to care for them during this process.
If you or your family already have a key worker or a children’s worker, arrange to keep in regular contact so they can check in on how you are all doing.
If you do not have any support from an organization, contact your local alcohol and drug treatment service who can offer you advice and help to keep the children or vulnerable adults safe. Information on NHS services is available.
You can also ask for help from health visitors or school nurses. Children may benefit from support from family or a helpline.
Family members or friends supporting you
Family members and friends may also wish to access support and may find some of the organizations below useful including Al-Anon and Adfam. Your local alcohol and drug treatment service will provide advice for family members if they have any questions about this process.