When people who have been drinking heavily for months or years and suddenly quit or reduce their consumption can experience dangerous or even life-threatening alcohol withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can commence as quick as within 2 hours of cessation of drinking and continue for weeks. What starts as mild forms of anxiety can worsen and require immediate medical attention. Dangerous life-threatening symptoms can affect 1-5% of alcoholics.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
It is important for alcoholics and their family members to recognize alcohol withdrawal symptoms and deal with it accordingly. Withdrawal from anything brings about an uncomfortable mental or physical change. It takes place when a person is deprived of something their body is used to – alcohol, drugs, medication etc. Excessive alcohol use is around 4 drinks for women and 5 for men per day.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary from mild to severe depending on how long a person has been drinking, the quantum of consumption and other health problems.
Psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
- Anxiety, stress, feelings of frustration, apprehension, fear and anger caused due to various circumstances like alcoholism.
- Irritability caused due to alcohol withdrawal is displayed in adults and young people. It arouses suspicion in and makes alcoholics fretful, fussy and whiny.
- Depression causes feelings of worthlessness, sadness, loneliness and is a sign that the person requires help.
- Fatigue is when a person feels tired, weary and listless. Since alcohol alters the mind, it saps energy and prevents a person from functioning normally.
- Other early psychological alcohol withdrawal symptoms include – nervousness or jumpiness, bad dreams, shakiness, swift emotional changes and the Inability to think clearly.
All these symptoms are generally expected to be mild to moderate.
Physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
- Gastritis: This causes irritation or inflammation of the linings of the stomach and overuse of alcohol is one cause. Gastritis symptoms include discomfort or pain in the upper abdomen, vomiting, bloated feeling or diarrhea.
- Headache: this pain in the head, neck or scalp can be mild or severe and debilitating like migraines. They can last from a few hours to weeks at a time and one cause is alcohol withdrawal.
- Sweating occurs when excessive perspiration from the sweat glands takes place. For alcoholics, sweating is mostly in the palms and face.
- Loss of appetite occurs when the body does not crave food. Since alcoholics have a severe craving for alcohol, other needs are shelved aside.
- Insomnia is an inability to sleep and this could be due to the bad dreams that alcohol abusers experience.
- Pallor is an unusual loss of skin color. The skin appears gray or very pale.
- Rapid heart rate is caused by a strong, irregular and bounding pulse that also causes palpitations of the heart.
- Clammy skin is when the skin becomes chilled, moist and abnormally pale.
- Other physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include dilated pupils, nausea and vomiting, hand tremors or hand shaking and involuntary movement of eyelids.
Severe withdrawal symptoms
- Hallucinations or is also called– a state of visual confusion. These episodes take place when the person is conscious and not asleep. Some forms of hallucinations include hearing voices; seeing lights, objects, beings, patterns that do not exist; and a crawling sensation on the skin. Chronic alcoholics who stop drinking can display some or all hallucination symptoms.
- Delirium tremens is a very severe symptom of alcohol withdrawal that involves sudden neurological or mental changes. It occurs when a person drinks heavily accompanied with not eating any food. Some symptoms include body tremors, disorientation, delirium, seizures etc.
- Agitation is a state of increased tension, arousal and irritability. It can cause a person to become hyperactive, hostile and confused.
- Fever: When the body temperature goes above normal in response to alcohol withdrawal
- Convulsions or seizures take place when there is abnormal electrical brain activity and it results in changes in behavior, unusual emotional swings, tension in the body, loss of muscle control, hallucinations etc.
- Blackouts when the person completely forges all that happens when they drink
Treatment of alcohol withdrawl
If you or someone you know experiences the above symptoms and is a known alcoholic, it is important to call for emergency medical services at once – especially if they display severe symptoms. These symptoms cannot be treated at home and require admission for treatment. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms require a 3-step treatment.
Intervention : From confrontational approach to treatment of alcoholics, these days, it is recommended that empathy and compassion has a more positive effect. If the person is willing to recognize they have a problem or even if they do not, their family or social worker must demonstrate to them that they have a problem and get them to seek professional help.
Detoxification : ‘Detox’ involves taking medication to help with withdrawal symptoms. Approach your doctor, who will recommend a course of appropriate medication. The dosage will start from high and go down slowly. The patient must agree to stop drinking completely. Some patients may require complete hospitalization and constant supervision to ensure they do not drink again. During this time, support from friends and family is needed especially if the patient does not check into a hospital. Their medication must be given correctly and they must be monitored closely. Sometimes vitamin supplements like vitamin B1 will be prescribed especially if the alcoholic is undernourished.
Rehabilitation : This is critical to ensure the patient stays completely off alcohol. It combines counseling sessions with psychological support and medical care. There are many rehabilitation programs available with inpatient and outpatient facilities. Sometimes, medications will be given to prevent a relapse in extreme cases.
Self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous have branches all over the world to provide help for recovering alcoholics. Family and friends must play a big part in helping the patient stay off alcohol. This could include removing stressors that caused the person to start drinking originally and continued psychiatric treatment for sometime.