Alcohol addiction is one of the most difficult substance use disorders to combat. Mostly, this is because the use of alcohol is not only socially acceptable, but in some cases, socially expected. We live in a world where celebrations revolve around glasses of sparkling wine and people fill up their refrigerators with beer before “watching the game on TV”. Those who refuse alcohol at parties are greeted with reactions ranging from mild surprise to mockery and insults. For some, a standard response to alcohol withdrawal symptoms – which may feel like a bad hangover – is to simply drink more alcohol.
All of this contributes to alcohol being the most widely abused substance in the world, and for alcoholism being the addiction that people are least likely to seek help for. Loved ones may not be in a position to help, simply because it can take a long time for them to realize that there is a problem.
Our lax social attitude toward alcohol use is accompanied by the belief held by many that overcoming alcohol addiction is simply a case of not having another drink. There are two major pitfalls to this plan: first, people who try to quit any substance without help are far more likely to give in to cravings and start using the substance again, and second, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be extremely dangerous – in some cases, fatal.
What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is the name given to the collection of symptoms that can occur when the body is deprived of alcohol — to which it has become accustomed. AWS typically starts several hours after the last drink and can go on for about a week. Symptoms include physical effects such as headaches and nausea, and mental effects like anxiety.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?
Alcohol addiction starts with tolerance. If someone who has never consumed alcohol has a glass of wine, it can have a tremendous impact on them. They might feel sick or get sleepy; a shy person may become outgoing; someone who is cautious might take risks.
If that person has a glass of wine each day, in time they will get used to it. And in order to achieve the same effects, they have to drink more. The body becomes tolerant to increasing amounts of alcohol, to the point where the tolerance becomes a dependence.
What this means is that the body does not merely tolerate the alcohol, it relies on it. And if it is suddenly deprived, it cannot cope, and withdrawal symptoms set in. The person will start to feel ill, and anxiety will set in if alcohol is not available.
Common Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
The first few hours
Six to twelve hours after the person has their last drink, the initial impacts of withdrawal will be felt. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms during this phase include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- A mild feeling of the jitters
- Agitation and anxiety that may be amplified if no alcohol is available
The first day
The headaches, nausea and vomiting generally pass without incident, but the other symptoms can become worse. The individual may experience the following:
- A sense of confusion and disorientation
- Uncontrollable hand tremors that interfere with the ability to perform tasks like eating and operating basic household items
- Jitters that escalate into seizures
Around the second or third day, the withdrawal symptoms escalate. They may include:
- Continuing seizures that are worsening in frequency and intensity
- High blood pressure and elevated body temperature
- In severe cases, the person will experience delirium tremens
What Is Delirium Tremens?
Delirium tremens, colloquially referred to as “the DTs”, is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. This condition can be fatal if not managed properly: an out-of-control body temperature, complications from seizures, and wild fluctuations in the heart rhythms can result in death. Anyone experiencing the following symptoms of delirium tremens should be provided with immediate medical care:
- Agitation, irritability and rapid mood swings
- A deep sleep that goes on for an unusual length of time
- Confusion and disorientation
- Increased or irregular heart rate
- Elevated body temperature
- High sensitivity to light, sound and touch
- Grand mal seizures
Does delirium tremens happen to everyone?
It is estimated that around half of all people who quit drinking experience withdrawal symptoms in any form. Of those, 3-5% experience delirium tremens.
You may be at high risk of delirium tremens if:
- You have been addicted to alcohol for more than ten years
- Your average daily consumption is equivalent to 2-3 bottles of wine, 7-8 pints of beer, or a pint of hard liquor
- You are more than 40 years of age
- You have suffered a head injury
- You have an illness at the time of withdrawal
- You have a history of seizures
- You have experienced delirium tremens in the past
How To Safely Withdraw From Alcohol
If you are addicted to alcohol – and especially if you are in a high-risk group for delirium tremens listed above – you should first talk to a medical professional before stopping your use of alcohol. Your doctor or addiction counselor may recommend that you undergo medical detox.
This is a process whereby you are under the supervision of a doctor, who will monitor your vital signs and treat your withdrawal symptoms as they arise.
If you choose to withdraw from alcohol without medical help, it is important that you do not do so alone. Ensure that you are in the company of a support person who will be able to identify the signs of delirium tremens and immediately ensure medical help if needed.
Recovery Does Not End With Alcohol Withdrawal
Safe alcohol withdrawal is an important first step in the journey to sobriety, but it is not the only step. Addictions almost always have a root cause, and a comprehensive rehab program will help you explore those causes, and either resolve them or learn more positive ways of dealing with them.
With the right approach and plenty of support, you can overcome your alcohol addiction and lead a positive, productive life. In terms of support, it doesn’t get better than addiction treatment experts. Here at Addictions CA, we have the tools and the expertise to help you manage alcohol withdrawal and addiction treatment. Contact us today!