What is it?
If you drink regularly, your body will become both physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol. You don’t have to be a raging drunk for this to be the case; you can become dependent by drinking daily but not excessively - or excessively though not daily.
Withdrawal symptoms are the body’s reaction to the lack of the chemicals upon which it has come to depend. These can range from mild discomfort to potentially lethal Delirium Tremens. Withdrawal symptoms can start anytime from three hours after your last drink and can become progressively worse over the next three to five days.
The way you get through your withdrawal will depend on the severity of your alcohol dependence and the level of support you have from those around you. It’s always wise to consult your GP before attempting to stop drinking, as there are a range of ways in which they can help and a range of dangers that they can protect you from.
This article on alcohol withdrawal is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.
Mild alcohol withdrawal
Mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are very similar to a hangover and include feeling sick, mild shaking, mild disorientation, and generally feeling uncomfortable and unwell. Your body will be craving a drink and will try to convince you that this is the answer to all your ills. Of course, it isn’t.
You may also have difficulty getting to sleep if you regularly drink in the evening, and you may feel nervous or anxious about how you’re going to make it through the next few days without a drink.
Most mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be dealt with using will power and the support of family and friends. Your GP may prescribe tranquilisers, such as diazepam (Valium) to calm your nerves during this period, and may kick off the course with a large intravenous dose.
Moderate to medium alcohol withdrawal
The higher your dependency on alcohol, the more severe your withdrawal symptoms will be. This can include shakes, hallucinations, palpitations, seizures, extreme anxiety and other psychotic behaviour.
Once again, your GP will be able to prescribe drugs to help you through these symptoms, and may arrange for you to be admitted to a specialist unit to monitor your progress, especially if you have a history of mental problems, or if you have little or no support at home.
In addition to diazepam, your GP can prescribe beta-blockers, such as propranolol, to calm your heart, and anti-seizure medication, such as carbamazepine. It should be noted, however, that none of these drugs ‘cure’ alcoholism or stop you wanting to drink, so you will also need willpower and lots of moral support.
Severe alcohol withdrawal
In the most severe cases, there is a serious risk of Delirium Tremens, or DTs. Patients who experience a severe reaction to alcohol withdrawal should seek urgent medical treatment without delay. Failure to deal with the symptoms can lead to Grand Mal seizures, heart attacks and strokes. DTs occur in around one to twenty patients, and have a shocking fatality rate, as high as one in five.
Symptoms often start with hallucinations within the first two days. These can be controlled by antipsychotic drugs such as haloperidol. Other symptoms, such as severe trembling are controlled using many of the same drugs discussed earlier, but in larger, intravenous doses.
There is no medical cure for DTs, so it is vital that patients at risk are monitored carefully so any symptoms are caught in the early stages before they take hold.
Beyond the physical
In the first few days, alcohol withdrawal is predominantly a physical reaction, as your body deals with the lack of alcohol. However, the psychological cravings will continue long after your body has dealt with its physical need.
Your GP may recommend a counsellor, or put you in touch with support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous to help you to deal with your ongoing cravings. Your GP may also prescribe drugs to help you resist alcohol. You can choose to either block the craving for a drink, using drugs such as acamprosate, or give yourself a severe physical reaction to drinking by using drugs such as disulfiram, which induce nausea and headaches in response to alcohol.
It is important to remember that not everyone who decides to stop drinking will be successful first time. It is likely that you will relapse the first couple of times and start drinking again. The important thing is that you have recognised you have a problem and have tried to deal with it. It will become easier each time you try, and if you persist, you will succeed.