Alcohol withdrawal syndrome refers to the set of symptoms that an alcoholic will experience once they stop drinking alcohol. Excessive use of alcohol leads to a physical dependency on alcohol and the symptoms that the alcoholic will experience are caused by the central nervous system being in a hyper-excitable state. Withdrawal from alcohol can be fatal and so it is advisable that alcoholics or alcohol-dependent individuals seek medical advice before completely withdrawing from alcohol.
How Long Does Withdrawal Take?
The timeline for withdrawal symptoms to end depends massively on how severe an individual’s drinking problem is and how long they have been drinking for. It also depends on whether they’ve quit drinking before, as repeated instances of quitting alcohol and resuming drinking again results in something known as kindling, whereby the withdrawal symptoms intensify and symptoms like hallucinations, tremors and seizures become more common.
The symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal could take up to a year or more to disappear completely. Mild drinkers or binge drinkers should see their symptoms disappear within a month or two, but drinkers who have been drinking heavily for a number of years may experience withdrawal symptoms for a number of months or years.
What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?
Symptoms of withdrawal depend on whether the individual is a binge drinker or a full time drinker. Mild drinkers may experience sleeplessness and feelings of anxiety, whereas heavy drinkers may experience any or all of the following symptoms:
Agitation, hallucinations including auditory and visual hallucinations, being able to taste and smell things that don’t exist, anorexia, anxiety and panic attacks, catatonia, which is a loss of motor skills, confusion, delirium and delusions, depression and fearfulness, derealisation, which is when the individual cannot tell what is real and what is made up, diarrhoea, euphoria, stomach upsets, headaches, migraines, high blood pressure, hyperthermia, insomnia, irritability, nausea and vomiting, heart palpitations, psychosis, restlessness, seizures, heart problems, and weakness.
The number one cause of death from alcohol withdrawal is seizures as they can prevent the individual from being able to breathe properly, but the individual can also be injured if they fall unexpectedly or if they catch themselves on furniture.
How is Alcohol Withdrawal Treated?
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol should be removed from the system gradually over a period of time, not from the system all in one go. Depending on the treatment plan, alcohol will be removed from the diet over a period of time and medication will be given to the patient to help them cope with their symptoms.
The most effective treatment is with benzodiazepines, which are useful for controlling seizures as well as other symptoms. However, benzodiazepines can be addictive in themselves so use of them needs to be highly controlled by doctors to prevent the alcoholic from replacing the alcoholism with a drug addiction or by adding another addiction to the one they already have. Long-term benzodiazepine use may also hinder the individual’s ability to fully recover from their alcoholism, although use of the drug can be potentially life-saving in severe cases.
Anti-psychotic drugs are often used alongside benzodiazepines to control agitation, hallucinations and other psychosis caused by alcohol withdrawal, although they tend not to be used for very long as they can lower the patient’s threshold for having seizures, thus making the withdrawal process lengthier and less likely to be successful.
If benzodiazepines are not successful in controlling seizures, the patient may be given anti-convulsant drugs such as topiramate in order to help with their symptoms.
If you or someone in your family is suffering with alcohol abuse, speak to your doctor immediately to begin a treatment plan. Alcoholism is treatable and you can recover with the right help.