In 1956, alcoholism was classified as a disease by the American Medical Association (AMA) because it affects the brain cells and disrupts the normal functioning of the human body. People who consume excessive alcohol on a daily basis are at great risk of experiencing physical, mental, and social problems.
As per the National Dietary Guidelines, one drink daily for women and two drinks daily for men is considered alcohol misuse. While people staying within limits can experience disturbing symptoms, those going overboard can experience liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and develop alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol use disorder is a disease where a person remains incapable of limiting the intake of alcohol despite harmful consequences. This craving for alcohol, tolerance to the effects of alcohol, and experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms when a person tries to quit; all come under alcohol use disorder.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
When a person with alcohol use disorder suddenly stops or significantly reduces alcohol consumption, the condition is called alcohol withdrawal. By doing so, a person may experience certain withdrawal symptoms in the initial stage as the body adjusts to the absence of alcohol. While some people recover from the withdrawal symptoms in about 5 days, others can experience prolonged symptoms.
In this article, we will discuss alcohol withdrawal symptoms, timeline, and treatment.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
There are multiple stages of alcohol withdrawal, which include common symptoms, such as:
- Mood changes
- Heart palpitations
- Tremors or shakes
- Increased blood pressure
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- Rapid abnormal breathing
Causes of Alcohol Withdrawal
When brain activity changes due to excessive or prolonged use of alcohol, it causes alcohol withdrawal. Though the neurological details are a bit complex, two particular neurochemicals run the whole process. When a person drinks too much, it disrupts the functioning of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors, the brain’s main inhibitory chemical, and glutamate, the brain’s excitatory chemical. As a result, the brain functioning process slows down, and a person starts experiencing anxiety and sedation. Also, the brain decreases the amount of GABA released and increases glutamate signaling to compensate for the alcohol levels. And this whole adaptation functions as long as the person consumes alcohol and is called ‘tolerance’. Also, when a person stops alcohol use, withdrawal symptoms occur.
Alcohol Withdrawal Stages and Severity
A range of factors decides what happens to the body when someone stops consuming alcohol. And every individual experiences a different level of severity, depending on the physiological dependence.
The three potential stages of alcohol withdrawal as illustrated by the American Academy of Family Physicians are as follows:
Stage 1 (Mild) – Stage 1 or people suffering from mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms can experience heart palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, headache, gastrointestinal disturbances, and hand tremor.
Stage 2 (Moderate) – People in stage 2 experience confusion, mild hypertension, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, and rapid abnormal breathing, along with stage 1 symptoms.
Stage 3 (Severe) – In addition to the moderate symptoms of stage 2, people suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal may experience disorientation, seizures, visual or audio hallucinations, and impaired attention.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can occur as per the guidelines given below:
Minor Withdrawal Symptoms: 6 Hours to 12 Hours
The relatively mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be experienced by a person as soon as after 6 hours after their last drink. People with a long history of heavy drinking can experience seizures after stopping drinking.
Alcoholic Hallucinations: 12 Hours to 24 Hours
As 12 hours passed, a few percent of people start experiencing hallucinations. They might start seeing and hearing things that are not actually there. They can also feel sensations like pins and needles.
Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures: 24 Hours to 48 Hours
Alcohol abusers continue experiencing mild symptoms at this point in time. If the symptoms are only mild, they will start decreasing after four to five days. On the other hand, people may have withdrawal-related seizures, in which case, they should seek immediate medical attention.
Delirium Tremens: 48 Hours to 72 Hours
This is where the symptoms are at their worst. Many individuals with severe alcoholism can experience cardiac collapse due to delirium tremens. With a mortality rate of 37%, moderate withdrawal symptoms can last from 5 days to a month.
Also, a few factors affect the severity and duration of symptoms:
- Medical history
- Length of time drinking
- Co-occurring health conditions
- Frequency of drinking
- The amount of alcohol consumption
- Substance use disorders
Alcohol Withdrawal Detox Treatment
The first step of the alcohol treatment is the detox process. But, the severity of symptoms decides what a person needs for the alcohol detoxification process. While some people can be treated at home, others need to go to an alcohol rehab to avoid potential complications, such as seizures. Also, there are various approaches and settings that can help maintain long-term sobriety, such as:
If a person is at an initial stage of alcohol withdrawal, it can be treated at home. And all they need is the family’s support. If a person is going for home treatment, there should be at least one person who stays with them 24/7, so that if the condition gets worse, they will be able to take the affected person to the hospital or call 911 immediately.
The family must also ensure that the person is going to their scheduled appointments and attending counseling sessions regularly. Also, a person can enroll into a rehab center or counseling sessions for alcohol detox treatment, if his or her family is not supportive or find it difficult to monitor them or her 24/7.
If the symptoms get too severe, it is time to admit the person to the hospital or an alcohol rehab centre. In the hospital setting, the doctors will make sure that they are treated carefully and properly. The doctors will monitor their condition and manage complications. Also, they help alcohol abusers to stay hydrated by inserting fluids intravenously.
To prevent alcohol withdrawal symptoms, doctors may prescribe sedatives, such as benzodiazepines. While these sedatives can reduce or limit the withdrawal symptoms from proceeding to serious consequences, they may cause a risk of dependence. If you or your loved one is prescribed this medicine, ask your doctor about its complications and always follow their instructions before taking them. While during initial treatment the dosage can be high, they will be reduced once the symptoms go mild. In addition, vitamin supplements are also given to alcohol addicts in order to address nutritional deficiencies that occur because of severe alcohol use.
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can cause serious problems if it is not treated at the right time. While alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be both mild and critical, they can be treated in various settings as suggested by your healthcare provider. If you are concerned about the potential withdrawal symptoms, it is safe to talk to a licensed doctor. Visit your nearest drug addiction treatment center today to know more about alcohol detoxification and how people use different modes of treatment!