Alcohol Withdrawal—Signs, Symptoms And Treatment

When someone who has become dependant on alcohol suddenly stops drinking, they may undergo severe withdrawal symptoms. Detoxing under supervision may be the best option to help overcome alcohol addiction.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Addiction to alcohol is responsible for disrupting and changing many people’s lives. Millions of people struggle with alcohol abuse every year in the United States, and the substance is the most widely abused substance in the nation.

Because alcohol is both legal and a substance considered acceptable at most social events, it is easy for people to abuse, whether unintentionally or purposely. People may not realize the risks or possibility of consequences that come with abusing alcohol, but alcohol abuse takes its toll, whether a person abuses it heavily once or over a long period of time.

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

One of the risks of alcohol abuse is developing alcohol dependence, or a physical reliance on alcohol. A person who has become physically dependent on alcohol needs the substance to function or feel normal. If a person with alcohol dependency doesn’t drink, they will begin to feel alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

How long symptoms last and the intensity of them depends on a few factors, including how long and how heavily the person abused alcohol. A person who abuses alcohol long-term (several consecutive months or years) will likely experience more severe symptoms than someone who is new to alcohol abuse.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “the more you drink regularly, the more likely you are to develop alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking.”

Alcohol withdrawal is also considered dangerous, as some of the symptoms a person can experience can be life-threatening if not properly addressed. If a loved one is suspected of alcohol withdrawal, it’s important to seek medical attention right away for their continued health and safety.

Signs Of Alcohol Withdrawal

Both the body and brain become addicted to alcohol when a person develops a physical dependence on the substance. Because of this, alcohol withdrawal can present in physical, psychological and behavioral signs.

Physical Signs Of Alcohol Withdrawal

Physical signs include those which affect the body. Physical signs of alcohol withdrawal differ among people affected, but may include:

  • clammy skin or sweating
  • dilated (large) pupils
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • increased heart rate
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • pallor
  • shaking/tremors

Psychological Signs Of Alcohol Withdrawal

People with a physical dependence already have a mental reliance on alcohol, or an addiction. Psychological signs are those which affect the brain and reflect a person’s addiction to alcohol.

Psychological signs of alcohol withdrawal may include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • irritability
  • mental confusion
  • nightmares

In extreme cases, a person may experience a severe and dangerous form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens. This form of withdrawal can put a person in harm’s way if proper treatment for it is not sought. Symptoms of delirium tremens can include agitation, fever, hallucinations, extreme confusion and seizures.

Symptoms Of Alcohol Withdrawal

Behavioral signs of alcohol withdrawal are usually the ones commonly associated with the withdrawal process. A person undergoing withdrawal will become preoccupied with alleviating symptoms.

Cravings for alcohol, an overwhelming feeling of a need to obtain and drink alcohol, seeking alcohol even when a person knows it is harmful to them and regardless of consequences are all signs of alcohol dependence and that the person is likely experiencing withdrawal.

Alcohol withdrawal can be excruciating and uncomfortable to the point the person continues drinking to keep these symptoms at bay. Yet feeding a person’s addiction to alcohol is not an effective way to overcome their dependence, and there are a number of treatment programs which can help a person break this cycle.

Alcohol Abuse, Addiction And Dependence

People begin to abuse alcohol for any number of reasons. In many cases, people do not see abuse of alcohol as abuse, but instead consider it a way to relax, cope with feelings or situations or self-medicate a mental health disorder or other illness.

Alcohol abuse is what occurs whenever a person drinks more than a moderate amount, several times per year for a 12-month period. A moderate amount of alcohol is four standard drinks on a single occasion for men and three for women, with no more than 14 drinks in a week for men and no more than seven for women.

However, even if a person drinks moderately, the more a person drinks, the more they increase their chances of developing an alcohol addiction. Alcohol addiction occurs once a person begins to rely on alcohol mentally to help them get through the day, get through an event or feel happy or normal.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. When a person drinks, they begin to feel calm and relaxed and even euphoric (extremely happy). Alcohol abuse, or drinking heavily, increases these feelings. As a person drinks, the brain rewires the way it responds to pain and pleasure, training itself to rely on alcohol to produce feelings it once produced on its own, such as happiness. With time, a person will not feel happy or like they can get through the day without alcohol.

Because alcohol is one of the few substances that can cause alcohol dependence in addition to addiction, a person with a dependence will come to rely on alcohol physically as well as mentally. Alcohol withdrawal is the body’s response to the person’s dependence on alcohol.

Once a person has surpassed alcohol abuse and progressed into alcohol addiction and/or dependence, they will likely be unable to quit drinking on their own and will need help to reach sobriety and build a manageable, functioning life again.

When To Get Help For Alcohol Withdrawal

Because alcohol withdrawal can cause serious symptoms which can be harmful when left untreated, like fever, extreme confusion and seizures, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately for anyone suspected of alcohol withdrawal.

Once the person is moved to medical care, they will receive fluids, monitoring of vital functions like breathing and heart rates, support and medication if needed to relieve withdrawal symptoms. However, treating one instance of withdrawal only helps a person manage it at the time. To overcome withdrawal completely, a person must treat the source: alcohol addiction and dependence. Otherwise, alcohol withdrawal will continue to happen any time a person tries to stop drinking.

It’s best to seek treatment for addiction or dependence immediately after seeking treatment for withdrawal. After a person overcomes the worst of withdrawal symptoms (a process that can take a few days up to a week or two), their body is free from the substance, known as detoxification, their mind is clear and they will be more receptive to a treatment program.

Treatment For Alcohol Addiction And Dependence

Treatment for alcohol addiction and dependence is best when adjusted to meet the specific needs of the individual. People with alcohol dependence will likely begin in a medically supervised detoxification program then move on to inpatient addiction treatment.

Inpatient addiction treatment programs provide daily and around-the-clock care to ensure a person stays sober throughout treatment, is equipped with the tools and skills necessary to enter recovery and is fully prepared to manage addiction long-term. Recovery from alcohol addiction is not a short-term process but one that will require dedication to lifetime management of symptoms and triggers.

The best inpatient programs recognize that alcohol addiction and dependence are illnesses which can be treated and which can be managed daily if a person builds a life which supports recovery. Therapies and methods used to achieve this include counseling, group and individual therapy, medication-assisted treatment, alternative therapies like wilderness or adventure therapy and more.

The amount of time a person spends in treatment will depend on the severity of their dependence, how long they abused alcohol, if they abused any other substances and whether they have any co-occurring mental health disorders. To properly treat alcohol dependence, it’s important that all other aspects of a person’s health are treated accordingly, so most reputable drug rehab centers provide excellent dual diagnosis (co-occurring disorder) treatment programs.

In the end, a person must have a stable support system in place to best alcohol addiction and dependence. Support can be found from family and friends and from an excellent addiction treatment center with a strong inpatient addiction treatment program.

Updated on April 28, 2020

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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