How to Treat Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

How to Treat Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Quitting the addiction of alcohol requires great determination. So one day you have finally decided to kick this habit but now facing repercussions of withdrawal symptoms. After so many years of drinking alcohol, your body can become chemically dependent on its regular intake. Unfortunately, for the long-time user, it can become very difficult to recover from it.

Highlights

  • Though a good step, alcohol withdrawal can also lead to physical and mental complications due to dependency on alcohol
  • Minor symptoms usually occurs 6-12 hours after quitting alcohol while heavy drinkers might need medical emergency after 48 hours
  • Patients of alcohol withdrawal can be safely treated at hospital or rehabilitation center.

The symptoms can vary from mild to severe and in some cases, life-threatening. It is also known as by the medical term alcohol withdrawal syndrome. So in order to effectively abandon this habit, one should seek the help of a medical professional. 

Let’s discuss some of the symptoms and types of treatment available today. But before that, it is important to know what causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

What causes alcohol withdrawal syndrome?

Heavy drinking upsets brain’s neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit messages across the brain. We can understand this from few examples below.

Effects on GABA

It is a neurotransmitter that produces a feeling of calm and relaxation. Initially, alcohol enhances the effect of GABA but regular consumption of alcohol suppresses this effect and a person will then need more and more alcohol to produce the desired effects of calm and relaxation.

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Effects on Glutamate

Glutamate neurotransmitter produces the feeling of excitement. Chronic alcohol consumption subdues this activity. 

To maintain balance in heavy drinkers, the functioning of glutamate becomes hyper as compared to moderate and non-drinkers.

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal

Symptoms will depend from person to person and the severity of alcoholism. These can be divided into two parts; physical symptoms and psychological symptoms.

Physical Symptoms

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shaky hands
  • Headache
  • Tremors
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite

Psychological Symptoms

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Disorientation
  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating

Onset of alcohol withdrawal symptoms

  • Minor alcohol symptoms usually occur 6-12 hours after a person stops drinking.
  • Some patients may experience visual or auditory hallucination between 12-24 hours of quitting alcohol. This usually goes on its own within 48 hours.
  • Delirium tremens or rapid onset of confusion occurs when a heavy drinker quits abruptly. This medical emergency can occur between 48-72 hours after quitting.

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Is alcohol withdrawal treatable?

Alcohol withdrawal patients can be safely treated at a local hospital as inpatient or outpatient depending on the condition. It can also be treated at rehabilitation centers. Generally, outpatient detoxification is considered cost-effective and safe.

Benzodiazepines

Usually, a four-day course of anti-anxiety medication benzodiazepines is given. These drugs work on the nerve cells to prevent shakiness, anxiety and the high risk of seizures. 

These drugs can also cause side effects including drowsiness in the daytime and respiratory problems. Benzodiazepines should not be used by pregnant women as they may cause birth defects.

Other Drugs

To avoid complications, your doctor might add some drugs to benzodiazepines such as:

Beta Blockers

Propranolol (Indernal) and Atenolol (Tenormin) to reduce tremor by lowering elevated blood pressure.

Anti-Seizure Medication

Carbamazepine (Tegretol) or Divalproex Sodium (Depakote) can be also be given to reduce the dependency of benzodiazepines.

Anti-Psychotic drugs

Such as Haldol (haloperidol) are given to relieve agitation and hallucination. One type of psychosis seen in some person undergoing alcohol withdrawal is Korsakoff's psychosis which is caused by lack of vitamin B1. In this case, vitamin injections can be given to treat the patient.

Medical assistance for alcohol withdrawal symptoms should be taken at the earliest while support of family and friends could strengthen a person’s fight against the disorder.

Glossary

Beta Blockers - Any of various drugs used in treating hypertension

Sources

1. Kattimani S. and Bharadwaj B.(2013, July).Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review read more
2. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: how to predict, prevent, diagnose and treat it.Abstract(2007, February). read more
3. Alcohol Use Disorders: Diagnosis and Clinical Management of Alcohol-Related Physical Complications. (2010)
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