Alcohol withdrawal happens when a person who drinks for a long period of time- months or years- experiences physical symptoms when he or she stops using alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms can range from feeling like you have the flu to hallucinations and seizures. Alcohol is a powerful sedative that keeps the mind in a permanent state of sedation, interfering with the brain’s ability to pass signals from one cell to another. When alcohol is removed from a system that’s accustomed to a state of sedation withdrawal symptoms appear. With help from medically supervised detox, people struggling with alcohol use disorder can withdraw safely. This sets the stage for the first steps on the road to recovery through an alcohol treatment program.
Withdrawal and Mental Health
As the brain begins to recover from the effects of alcohol, the person in detox may feelings anxious or nervous. The brain doesn’t know how to interpret the extra signals it’s receiving and reacts to this surge of information with alarm. People who feel anxious might demonstrate their feelings by:
- Jumping at noises
- Developing nightmares
Sedating medications, including benzodiazepines or central-acting agents, can help to soothe these jumpy, shaky feelings. Low doses might be enough to break the cycle for some, but others might need higher doses in the early stages of withdrawal and then slowly taper off as they improve.
Depression may also take hold during alcohol withdrawal due to changes in hormone levels in the blood as the substance is removed.1 Once again, it seems that the brain interprets changes in the body with alarm and uses emotion to encourage people to take action. Feelings of depression, in particular often leads those in recovery to crave alcohol. to look for alcohol. Learning coping tools for dealing with alcohol cravings during therapy sessions and support group meetings are an essential part of the treatment process.
The changes that take place during withdrawal don’t merely impact a person’s mental health. The body also goes through physical adjustments during the process. Clammy, pale skin as well as enlarged pupils and shaking hands are all common during withdrawal. Although not life-treatening, symptoms can be uncomfortable.
Anti-nausea medications are helpful and can be provided by injections that deliver relief almost immediately. Soft, bland, absorbent foods might also help to soothe an inflamed digestive system during detox.
The alcohol withdrawal process is a bit like a forest fire, starting small and slow, but spreading quickly if detox isn’t handled properly in the early days. If those struggling don’t get help for their symptoms, their brains continue to fire at an unusually fast rate. This can cause a cluster of symptoms called “delirium tremens.” People with this diagnosis experience the following:
- Severe confusion
- Visual or auditory hallucinations
- Overt agitation
- Sensitivity to light, sound or touch
- Elevated temperature
- Fast heart rate2
Once in place, delirium tremens tends to progress quickly, and people who don’t get prompt treatment can develop seizures. While seizures like this can be treated with medications, people who experience a seizure may experience confusion, weakness or amnesia when the seizure is over.
Benzodiazepines are the drugs of choice when it comes to treating delirium tremens.3 Medications can be given early in the withdrawal process to help ensure that seizures don’t even develop. Medical personnel monitor patients closely for signs of advancing delirium tremens and give medication when early signs appear. This can help prevent medical complications while making sure patients aren’t overly medicated or sedated during the healing process.
The amount of time a person spends in active alcohol withdrawal depends on multiple factors. The amount of alcohol the person is accustomed to drinking, the length of time the alcoholism has been in place and the number of times the person has tried to quit in the past all play a part in the length of withdrawal. In time, a person who drank large amounts of alcohol each day might get better and better until the memory of alcohol withdrawal tends to fade away. While others do such damage during their years of alcohol abuse that the symptoms they experience are more intense and last longer.
While alcohol withdrawal can become serious, and people can experience severe medical complications when they attempt to stop drinking, allowing an alcohol abuse issue to stay in place is even more catastrophic. Alcohol can damage the connections in the brain, and that damage might not be reversed even when the drinking stops. Withdrawal, on the other hand, can be managed with medications, and the symptoms it causes are often kept well under control with medical help.
Finding Help or Alcohol Abuse
If you’re a heavy drinker and you’d like to stop, please contact us. We provide a medical detoxification program under the supervision of consulting physicians and use medical monitoring to ensure the process is safe. We make adjustments to ensure you stay comfortable and are right there with you to help should new symptoms begin. Call us 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options. You are not alone.
1 Buddy T | Reviewed by Steven Gans, MD. “Alcohol Can Impair the Body’s Hormone System.” Verywell. Accessed 18 Dec. 2017.
2 “Delirium tremens.” MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia, 18 Dec. 2017.
3 Sachdeva, Ankur, et al. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond.” Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research : JCDR, JCDR Research and Publications (P) Limited, Sept. 2015.