Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors
Alcohol withdrawal is a set of symptoms that may occur when a person suddenlystops drinking after using alcohol for a long time.
What is going on in the body?
When a person has been drinking to excess for several months or years, his orher body comes to rely on alcohol and its effects. Alcohol is a depressant thatacts like a sedative or tranquilizer on the body. When the intake of alcohol issuddenly stopped, the body may go through withdrawal.
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Alcohol withdrawal rarely occurs in a person who only drinks once in a while.Someone who has gone through alcohol withdrawal before is more likely to havewithdrawal symptoms each time he or she quits drinking alcohol.
Symptoms & Signs
What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal usually occur within 12 to 72 hours after thelast drink of alcohol. Major withdrawal symptoms may occur for up to 7 days,with recurring symptoms lasting for several months. A person going throughwithdrawal may have a wide variety of symptoms, including:
If left untreated, alcohol withdrawal can lead to a more serious set ofsymptoms called delirium tremens or DTs. These symptoms usually appear about2 to 10 days after the drinking stops. A person with DTs is anxious at first.Later, other symptoms occur that can include:
Diagnosis & Tests
How is the condition diagnosed?
Diagnosis of alcohol withdrawal begins with a history and physicalexam. While there is no test to determine if a person is an alcoholic, thenegative effects of alcohol on the body can be seen. Liver functiontests can measure liver damage. Special tests, called MRIs andultrasounds, can check the different organs inside the body fordamage.
Prevention & Expectations
What can be done to prevent the condition?
A person can prevent alcohol withdrawal by not drinking alcoholexcessively. A person with alcoholism who wishes to stop drinking shouldconsult his or her healthcare provider. Certain treatment and programs maycurtail alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Alcohol withdrawal can lead to DTs, which can be fatal if untreated. A personmay find it hard to handle stressful situations and may begin drinking again.
What are the risks to others?
Alcohol withdrawal is not contagious, and poses no direct risk toothers.
Treatment & Monitoring
What are the treatments for the condition?
The goals of treatment are to treat the immediate withdrawal symptoms, toprevent complications, and to begin long-term preventive treatment.
In mild forms of alcohol withdrawal, medicine may be given to make the personfeel less agitated. A person with more severe forms of withdrawal needs to behospitalized during the period of detoxification. The person is usually givencentral nervous system depressants and sedatives to reduce the symptoms.
Vitamin deficiency causes potentially life-threateningwithdrawalsymptoms. Healthcare providers in emergency departments usually give large intravenous doses ofvitamins C and B, as well as thiamine. Close monitoring of the pulse,breathing, temperature, and blood pressure is important during the firststages of alcohol withdrawal.
After the urgent medical problems are resolved, a detoxification andrehabilitation program should be started. In the first phase of treatment,alcohol is completely withdrawn.Then an alcoholic has to change his or her behavior. Self-help groups, such asAlcoholics Anonymous, are encouraged.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects vary, depending on the medicines used. For instance,antidepressants may cause irritability and shakiness. Sedatives can beaddicting.
What happens after treatment for the condition?
A person who completes treatment often will continue some form of counseling orself-help group. The individual will often voluntarily continue to attendself-help groups for the rest of his or her life. A person who starts drinkingagain will most likely go through alcohol withdrawal again.
How is the condition monitored?
Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcareprovider.
Article type: xmedgeneral