Alcohol withdrawal is the changes the body goes through when a person suddenly stops drinking after prolonged and heavy alcohol use. Symptoms include trembling (shakes), insomnia, anxiety, and other physical and mental symptoms.
The most dangerous form of alcohol withdrawal occurs in about 1 out of every 20 people who have withdrawal symptoms. This condition is called delirium tremens (also called DTs).
In delirium tremens, the brain is not able to smoothly readjust its chemistry after alcohol is stopped. This creates a state of temporary confusion and leads to dangerous changes in the way the brain regulates circulation and breathing.
What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome?
The signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome may appear anywhere from six hours to a few days after an individual’s last drink. These usually include at least two of the following:
• an increased heart rate
• high blood pressure
The symptoms may worsen over two to three days, and some milder symptoms may persist for weeks in some people. They may be more noticeable when one wakes up with less alcohol in the blood.
What causes alcohol withdrawal syndrome?
Excessive drinking excites and irritates the nervous system. If an individual drinks daily, the body becomes dependent on alcohol over time. When this happens, the central nervous system can no longer adapt easily to the lack of alcohol. If one suddenly stops drinking or significantly reduce the amount of alcohol he or she drinks it can cause alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
How is alcohol withdrawal syndrome treated?
Treatment for AWS depends on how severe the symptoms are. Some people can be treated at home, but others may need supervised care in a hospital setting to avoid potentially dangerous complications such as seizures.
The first goal of treatment is to keep the individual comfortable by managing his or her symptoms. Alcohol counseling is another important treatment goal.
Certain sedatives known as benzodiazepines are used to treat the symptoms. Commonly prescribed benzodiazepines include:
• lorazepam (Ativan)
• clonazepam (Klonopin)
• alprazolam (Xanax)
• diazepam (Valium)
In addition, vitamin supplements may be given to replace essential vitamins that are depleted by alcohol use.
Preventing alcohol withdrawal syndrome
The best way to prevent AWS is to avoid regular heavy drinking. If you are already dependent on alcohol, seek counseling and medical care.
1. Chitra B, September 2018. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Available at https://healthline.com
2. Harvard medical school. Alcohol withdrawal. Available at https://health.havard.edu
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