Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that when consumed in large doses can lead to addiction, and when stopped suddenly, can cause withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal is the physical and mental symptoms that occur when a person stops drinking alcohol abruptly. The severity of withdrawal symptoms depends on the individual and the amount of alcohol they consumed. In severe cases, alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening. This article will explain what to do for alcohol withdrawal and provide a guide to overcoming symptoms.
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can begin within hours of the last drink and can last up to a week. Symptoms can vary in severity and can include:
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Irritability and mood swings
- Nausea and vomiting
- Tremors (shakes)
- Delirium tremens (DTs), a severe form of withdrawal that includes confusion, rapid heartbeat, and fever
Severe Withdrawal Symptoms
Severe withdrawal symptoms, including seizures and delirium tremens, can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention. The risk of severe withdrawal symptoms is highest in those who have been heavy drinkers for many years, have experienced withdrawal before, or have a history of seizures or other medical conditions.
What to Do for Alcohol Withdrawal
If you or someone you know is experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. A doctor can evaluate the severity of the withdrawal symptoms and provide appropriate treatment. Treatment for alcohol withdrawal may include:
- Medications to reduce withdrawal symptoms, including benzodiazepines such as diazepam or lorazepam
- Fluids and electrolytes to correct imbalances caused by vomiting or diarrhea
- Thiamine and other vitamins to prevent nutritional deficiencies
- Antipsychotic medication to reduce agitation and confusion
- Hospitalization for severe withdrawal symptoms, particularly for those at risk of seizures or delirium tremens
- Referral to addiction treatment programs to address the underlying alcohol use disorder
While medical care is essential for severe alcohol withdrawal, some people may experience mild to moderate symptoms that can be managed at home. Self-care strategies for alcohol withdrawal may include:
- Resting and getting plenty of sleep
- Drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration
- Eating a healthy and balanced diet
- Avoiding caffeine and other stimulants, which can worsen anxiety and sleep disturbance
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation or deep breathing
The outlook for alcohol withdrawal depends on the individual and the severity of the symptoms. In severe cases, complications such as seizures, delirium tremens, and heart failure can occur, which can lead to long-term health problems or even death. With appropriate medical care and support, however, most people are able to overcome alcohol withdrawal and maintain sobriety in the long term.
Prevention of Alcohol Withdrawal
The best way to prevent alcohol withdrawal is to seek treatment for an alcohol use disorder before withdrawal symptoms occur. Treatment for alcohol addiction may include:
- Behavioral therapy to address underlying psychological factors that contribute to alcohol use
- Medication-assisted treatment to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms
- Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous to provide ongoing support and encouragement
Staying sober after alcohol withdrawal is a lifelong process, and relapse can occur at any time. To prevent relapse, it is important to:
- Attend follow-up appointments with medical and addiction treatment providers
- Participate in support groups or counseling
- Avoid triggers that may lead to drinking, such as certain people, places, or events
- Develop healthy coping mechanisms for stress and other negative emotions
- Maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle, including regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and good sleep hygiene
FAQs on What to Do for Alcohol Withdrawal
Q: What is alcohol withdrawal, and what causes it?
Alcohol withdrawal is the physical and mental symptoms that occur when a person stops drinking alcohol abruptly. Alcohol withdrawal occurs because the body has become physically dependent on the substance, and when the person stops drinking, the body experiences withdrawal symptoms as it attempts to adjust to the absence of alcohol.
Q: What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include anxiety, irritability, tremors, sweating, headache, insomnia, and in severe cases, seizures, delirium tremens, and even death.
Q: How is alcohol withdrawal treated?
Alcohol withdrawal is treated with medications to reduce symptoms and prevent complications, as well as fluids and other supportive care to correct imbalances caused by vomiting and other symptoms. In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary.
Q: Can alcohol withdrawal be life-threatening?
Yes, severe alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening, particularly in those at risk of seizures or delirium tremens. It is important to seek medical attention immediately if you or someone you know is experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Q: How can alcohol withdrawal be prevented?
Alcohol withdrawal can be prevented by seeking treatment for an alcohol use disorder before withdrawal symptoms occur. Treatment may include behavioral therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Q: How can relapse after alcohol withdrawal be prevented?
Relapse after alcohol withdrawal can be prevented by attending follow-up appointments with medical and addiction treatment providers, participating in support groups or counseling, avoiding triggers that may lead to drinking, developing healthy coping mechanisms for stress and other negative emotions, and maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Rosenthal, R. N. (2015). Efficacy of Benzodiazepine-Receptor Agonists in the Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: A Systematic Review. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 39(3), 553–563.
Sullivan, J. T., Sykora, K., Schneiderman, J., Naranjo, C. A., & Sellers, E. M. (1989). Assessment of Alcohol Withdrawal: The Revised Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol Scale (CIWA-Ar). British Journal of Addiction, 84(11), 1353–1357.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. Retrieved March 9, 2021, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-withdrawal.