Conquering Alcohol Withdrawal

A person who is dependent on alcohol may experience withdrawal symptoms when they abruptly stop or significantly reduce their drinking.1

Alcohol withdrawal can cause serious health effects. Read on to learn:

  • The signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
  • The dangers of withdrawing from alcohol at home.
  • Medications that can help during withdrawal and recovery.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

A person may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms anywhere from 6 to 24 hours after their last drink.2 These symptoms vary greatly from one person to another and depend on a range of factors, including how much they regularly drink, how often, their tolerance to alcohol, weight, and other health issues, among others.2 Alcohol withdrawal signs and symptoms include:2

Alcohol Withdrawal and DTs

In very rare cases, people develop delirium tremens (DTs), which is a very serious outcome of alcohol withdrawal. People with DTs have a high fever and severe mental confusion, can experience seizures and, in some cases, experience systemic shutdowns that may lead to death.2 Risk factors for DTs, prolonged withdrawal symptoms, or more severe withdrawal symptoms include:2, 3

  • Heavy alcohol use shortly before treatment has begun.
  • Having a history of undergoing detox or other withdrawal episodes.
  • Severity of past episodes of withdrawal.
  • Older age.
  • The presence of co-occurring mental or physical illness.
  • Use of other substances, in addition to alcohol.

A standard course of assessment, medical management, and treatment can help prevent more severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Delirium tremens happen over time and do not appear suddenly. Treatment by a trained physician who pays attention to small signs of regression can help prevent DTs from occurring.2

Can Alcohol Withdrawal Be Done at Home?

You may have friends or family who tell you stories of someone who went “cold turkey” or just decided to stop drinking one day and did it on their own. However, withdrawing from alcohol can be uncomfortable and, in rare cases, also potentially dangerous.2

Before attempting to quit drinking or otherwise slow your regular, heavy alcohol use, you may wish to contact your physician to see if your withdrawal would be most appropriately managed in a treatment program where you can safely detox in a medical setting, supervised by healthcare professionals.

Medications for Alcohol Withdrawal

Benzodiazepines may be used to help wean a patient off of alcohol safely and help them avoid the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Because benzodiazepines are habit-forming, the use of these medications is carefully monitored.2

If a person in withdrawal is experiencing hallucinations or delirium, a doctor may prescribe antipsychotics.

Beta blockers are used at times for alcohol withdrawal to help manage episodes of high blood pressure and irregular and/or rapid heartbeat that some people experience during alcohol withdrawal.2

A patient’s alcohol treatment team will take into account other important factors, including screening for nutritional deficiencies, your history of seizures, and severity of withdrawal.4 Alcohol withdrawal management should be conducted in a quiet place, free of overstimulation. A quality detox program will carefully examine all of these factors to determine the best course of detox treatment for you.

Medications for Relapse Prevention Following Detox

Relapse is fairly common during a person’s recovery and does not mean they have failed or that they cannot get sober again. A relapse may be triggered by using a small amount of alcohol or thinking you can tolerate it or exposure to triggers for using, such as going to a bar where you drank a lot before detox. Stress can also lead to relapse.1

There are a handful of FDA-approved medications that may help prevent relapse. Many people use medication-assisted treatment (MAT) in their recovery journey, and it may be part of your ongoing treatment program. Medications often used in MAT for alcohol use disorder include:5

  • Disulfiram (Antabuse). It causes nausea, vomiting, flushed skin, and extreme anxiousness if you ingest alcohol after taking it.
  • Acamprosate, which helps curb drinking in many people. Unlike disulfiram, it is also safe to use for people who have liver disease.
  • Originally designed to block the effects of opioids, naltrexone also works for alcohol abuse. You must be abstinent from alcohol for 7 days before starting naltrexone, and it cannot be used if you need opioids for pain management.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from uncomfortable to moderate and sometimes may be severe. Symptoms may be tough to manage on your own, and in rare but severe cases, it can even be dangerous to try. Many addiction treatment facilities, like River Oaks, provide medical detox in safe, comfortable environments monitored by qualified healthcare professionals. If you or a loved are ready to begin recovery from alcohol, call to talk to one of our caring, knowledgeable Admissions Navigators about River Oaks and your options for treatment.

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