Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
You may experience withdrawal symptoms, if you try to stop drinking alcohol suddenly especially if you have been drinking for a long period of time, drinking frequently, and/or drinking heavily. There is no way to predict how you will respond to quitting. Also it may not be possible for you to cut back or quit completely without medical help. But don’t lose heart, as there are a number of approaches such as medications, counseling and self help groups that are available to help you recover from alcoholism.
About Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome refers to a set of symptoms that is experienced by an individual when he/she suddenly quits drinking alcohol after having chronically ingested it. Not everyone who quits drinking alcohol has these symptoms. Individuals who have had an alcohol abuse for a long period of time, have been drinking frequently, or who drink heavy whenever they drink, will experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop drinking alcohol. An individual who has experienced withdrawal symptoms once, is more likely to experience it every time he/she stops drinking.
Drinking too much of alcohol changes the balance of chemicals in the brain associated with the pleasurable aspects of drinking alcohol. Over a period of time, the brain of an individual who regularly ingests alcohol gets adjusted to the presence of alcohol in order to maintain normal function. Excessive, long-term drinking affects the balance of these chemicals, causing the body to crave alcohol to restore good feelings or to avoid negative feelings The individual’s body not only develops physical tolerance to alcohol but he/she also needs increasingly more levels of alcohol in order to experience the same buzz or high. Withdrawal symptoms are typically responses by the body and brain to the depletion of alcohol to which they have become adapted/ accustomed.
Symptoms experienced may vary from mild to severe depending on the level of addiction in the individual. The most frequently encountered psychological symptoms are irritability, fatigability, depression, nightmares, shakiness, nervousness, and anxiety. Insomnia, decreased appetite, headache, nausea and vomiting, rapid heartbeat, cold and clammy skin, and tremors of the hands are few of the physical symptoms experienced. The more severe symptoms include agitated behavior, fever, convulsions, and delirium tremens. An individual with delirium tremens may see, feel or hear things that are not there (hallucinations), and may even experience confusion and anxiety. The symptoms are seen to begin about 8 to 12 hours after the last drink and usually peak by 2 to 4 days. They may last for about a week. Certain severe symptoms such as mood changes, sleep patterns, and fatigue can last up to a year or even beyond.
Need to see a doctor
Withdrawal symptoms can be life threatening in some individuals. It is, therefore, advisable for individuals experiencing withdrawal symptoms to seek medical care to ensure that it doesn’t lead to serious health problems. It is better to see the doctor even if the symptoms are mild. Individuals who go through withdrawal a number of times are seen to experience worsening symptoms each time if proper medical treatment has not been administered. Individuals with associated health problems such as heart disease, lung disease, seizures, or infections need to particularly see the doctor if they decide to quit drinking alcohol. Also individuals who decide to stop using other drugs such as tobacco, injected drugs, or cocaine at the same time as drinking alcohol may have severe withdrawal symptoms and should therefore see the doctor before they decide to quit.
The doctor can play an important role in an individual’s efforts to quit drinking. He/she can help prevent the development of serious health problems in the individual by keeping track of the withdrawal symptoms. The doctor may examine and monitor the individual for the presence of abnormal eye movements, abnormal heart rhythms, dehydration, elevated body temperature, liver failure, rapid breathing, and rapid heart rate. The doctor can prescribe medications for the symptoms of shakiness, anxiety, and confusion and prevent them from worsening. The doctor can also provide emotional support that is needed during this time.
Management of an individual in withdrawal aims to reduce the immediate symptoms, prevent complications, and initiate long term therapy to promote long term abstinence. Individuals with mild to moderate symptoms can be managed on an outpatient basis. They need to have a person committed to stay with them during the process and monitor them closely. These individuals may need sedatives to help with the symptoms. Oral medications such as disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate may be prescribed to help reduce the urge to drink. They may also be tested and treated for any medical problems or mental health illnesses if present. Individuals with moderate to severe symptoms may require in hospital monitoring and treatment. Medical monitoring of the blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, and signs of hallucinations for delirium tremens may be done. Many of them may require fluids or medications infused through a vein to correct dehydration and reduce symptoms. Use of sedatives such as benzodiazepines may be required until the withdrawal is complete.
Support from peers
Support of family and friends during the phase of withdrawal is of utmost importance for the individual trying to quit alcohol. They need to have a person committed to stay with them during this period to closely monitor and help the individual in resisting the urge to drink during withdrawal. As the symptoms become manageable patient and family counseling can help to address the long term issue of the patient’s alcoholism. The individual may need to distance self from friends and social situations that may impair recovery.
Once the withdrawal symptoms have subsided the individual may benefit from joining a treatment or sobriety programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, educational lectures, activity therapy that provides the much needed support to avoid and manage relapses, cope with necessary lifestyle changes, and help in staying sober. The individual also needs to avoid activities that involve drinking and rather replace them with hobbies or pastimes that are not centered on alcohol.
Alcohol withdrawal is a serious condition that may rapidly become life threatening in some individuals. Treatment may involve a brief intervention, an outpatient program or counseling, or a residential inpatient stay. After the immediate period of withdrawal the individual may benefit from the encouragement and support that is available at support group meetings and alcohol abuse forums. Long-term outlook depends on how much organ damage has occurred and whether the person can stop drinking completely. The best treatment for those who have gone through withdrawal is permanent and life-long abstinence from alcohol.