Heavy drinking for a long period of time can lead to problems when you stop or reduce your alcohol consumption. If you suddenly decrease your alcohol intake or abstain altogether, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. These can range from mild to severe, and in some cases, can be life-threatening. It is important to understand the signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, as well as the treatments available to help manage them. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is the result of alcohol-induced imbalances in brain chemistry that cause excessive neuronal activity if alcohol is retained.
Symptoms of AWS can include mild to moderate tremors, irritability, anxiety, or agitation. The most severe manifestations of withdrawal include delirium tremens, hallucinations and seizures. Management of AWS includes a thorough assessment of the severity of the patient's symptoms and any complicating conditions, as well as treatment of withdrawal symptoms with pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches. Treatment can be performed both inpatient and outpatient.
Recognition and treatment of abstinence may represent a first step in the patient's recovery process. Excessive alcohol consumption is the most common form of heavy alcohol consumption. For women, it is defined as four or more drinks in one go. For men, it is defined as five or more drinks at once. Heavy drinkers who suddenly decline or stop drinking altogether may experience withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol dependence, also known as “alcoholism” or alcohol addiction, is serious and can lead to a number of health problems.
People who are dependent on alcohol may experience a strong, often uncontrollable desire to drink and feel that they cannot function without alcohol. When someone abruptly stops drinking, alcohol no longer inhibits neurotransmitters, and the brain rushes to adapt to the new chemical imbalance, causing the debilitating side effects of withdrawal, which are independent of the “feel good” effects of alcohol consumption. It is believed that alcohol withdrawal arises based on various changes in brain activity caused by prolonged and excessive consumption of alcohol. In some cases, withdrawal symptoms can occur at blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) that would be intoxicating in non-alcohol-dependent people, but which for dependent patients represent a decrease in their usual BAC. Call your provider or go to the emergency room if you think you might have alcohol withdrawal, especially if you used alcohol frequently and stopped recently. Whether or not you develop alcohol withdrawal symptoms depends largely on your body chemistry, how much alcohol you drink daily, how old you are, whether you have any other concurrent physical or mental conditions, and many other factors. Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon offer an outlet to discuss treatment goals and challenges with others recovering from alcohol. You will likely be tested for other medical problems related to your alcohol use and you will likely receive advice about your alcohol use. It is important to understand the signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome so that it can be properly managed.
With proper treatment and support from family and friends, those suffering from AWS can begin their journey towards recovery.