What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
In 1992, approximately 13.8 million Americans, or about 7% of the population, met the criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence. When quitting alcohol, many people experience some form of alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a set of symptoms that occur when an individual reduces or stops alcohol consumption after a prolonged period of abuse. According to a 2004 article in the journal American Family Physician, each year 226,000 patients are discharged with a condition related to alcohol withdrawal[i].
What is Alcohol Addiction and How Does it Lead to Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol addiction is when prolonged and excessive alcohol consumption leads to tolerance and physical dependence. While addicted to alcohol, the body compensates for alcohol’s depressive effects by increasing production of hormones and brain chemicals (serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine). So, when a person stops drinking, their bodies becomes inundated with abnormally high levels of these chemicals. Basically, their brains begin working in overdrive.
Alcohol Withdrawal Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal relate proportionally to alcohol intake and duration of the abuse [ii]. The signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawals occur in the central nervous system and usually begin about six to twenty-four hours after the last drink.
The severity of these symptoms can vary from milder ones such as sleep disturbances, anxiety, nausea, sweating, and upset stomach, to more severe and life threatening ones such as heart palpitations, delirium or delirium tremens (the DT’s), hallucinations, seizures, and autonomic instability.
Delirium Tremens, Latin for “shaking frenzy,” are an infamous symptom of alcohol withdrawal. They’re considered to be the most severe manifestation of alcohol withdrawal and can occur as long as three to ten days after the last drink[iii]. Signs that someone is experiencing the DT’s are: nightmares, agitation, global confusion, disorientation, visual and auditory hallucinations, fever, hypertension, tachycardia, and diaphoresis.
An alcoholic experiencing the DT’s sometimes has extreme perceptual disturbances, such as hallucinations involving insects, snakes, or rats. Often, those with the DT’s experience an extreme feeling of “impending doom.”
The severity of alcohol withdrawal also depends on the number, and harshness, of previous withdrawals. Quitting drinking requires either a pre-planned hospitalization or immediate admittance to a detox center. Pre-planned hospitalizations can lead to admittance to an alcohol abuse treatment center, allowing the individual a safe environment, where they can begin to change their life.