Ask the loved ones of any alcoholic and they will tell you just how easily an alcohol addiction can gain control over your life. You see, when your body develops a physical or psychological dependency to a substance, quitting your use of it will be difficult. This is especially true of alcohol. In fact, if you’re addicted to alcohol and have been using it regularly, abruptly ending your consumption without appropriate medical supervision can be quite dangerous. In some cases, untreated alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. This is why alcohol addiction treatment is so important.
What causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms?
The effects of alcohol withdrawal differ from one person to the next. The length of time you’ve has been drinking, the typical amount consumed, and your personal reactions to the substance all contribute to the severity of your withdrawal symptoms.
Large amounts of alcohol act as a sedative in your body. With continued use, your brain will adjust its chemical balance to accommodate the effects of alcohol. So, if you’re an alcoholic and suddenly decrease your consumption or stop drinking altogether, your brain is essentially over-stimulated and withdrawal symptoms start to occur. These symptoms are referred to as alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
Some alcoholics begin to experience signs of withdrawal in as little as two hours after their last drink. However, for many alcoholics, withdrawal symptoms don’t begin to appear until five to ten hours later. As your brain attempts to readjust its delicate balance of chemicals, you’ll be vulnerable to a variety of side effects. Following is a list of common alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which usually peak in severity one to two days after you stop drinking:
- Tremors or uncontrollable shaking
- Elevated heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Rapid breathing
- Insomnia or sleep difficulties
- Nightmares or unusual dreams
- Hyper excitability
The most common symptoms typically subside within three to four days. However, many alcoholics in recovery still crave alcohol for years after their addiction treatment.
Dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptoms
While the side effects above can be quite uncomfortable and often hard to manage, they don’t usually pose any serious threats to your health and safety during the withdrawal process. IN come cases, however, more serious side effects may occur. Medically supervised addiction treatment can greatly reduce the chances of serious or life threatening complications that could arise during withdrawal. These symptoms include:
- Detailed and vivid hallucinations (may last up to two days)
- Seizures (may occur consecutively over the course of several hours)
- Delirium tremens (often referred to as DTs)- these can cause very serious complications without adequate treatment
A closer look at delirium tremens
Only a small percentage of people with an alcohol addiction will experience DTs during the withdrawal process. Although it is far less common than other withdrawal symptoms, delirium tremens is the most dangerous side effect associated with alcohol withdrawal. DTs will usually begin 48-72 hours after the last drink was consumed. These episodes typically peak in severity four or five days after quitting. In some instances, it may take a week or longer for DTs to appear. Delirium tremens may include:
- Shallow or irregular breathing
- Dangerously elevated blood pressure
- Extremely fast pulse
- Severe dehydration
- Profuse sweating
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Irrational thoughts or behaviors
- Altered moods
Addiction treatment can minimize the effects of DTs, but hospitalization in an intensive care unit may be recommended. This allows for close monitoring so the patient can be monitored for any respiratory or cardiac complications, especially if there is no addiction treatment plan in place following detox. Unfortunately, even with proper medical care, approximately 5-15% of alcoholics who develop DTs end up dying from them.
Is addiction treatment always necessary?
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome affects less than half of those with an alcohol dependency when they stop drinking. Approximately 60% of those who suffer withdrawal side effects, however, will experience multiple seizures without proper treatment. Thirty to 40% of those patients will eventually develop DTs.
Some individuals have a much higher risk of alcohol withdrawal syndrome than others. If you are in this category, then you definitely should try to stop drinking without the assistance of a medical detox program. Those with the greatest risk include:
- Elderly patients with alcohol addiction
- Anyone who’s been drinking daily for 10 years or more
- Binge drinkers whose binges last two weeks or longer
- Epileptic patients or anyone who has a higher risk of seizures
- Individuals who have experienced serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the past
- Anyone with a current medical condition, particularly cardiac, liver, or kidney problems
How does medical detox work?
Medical detox is used in the treatment of both drug and alcohol addictions. It is most often used when an abrupt discontinuation of a substance can result in potentially dangerous side effects like respiratory problems, seizures, or delirium tremens.
Substance abuse over a prolonged period causes a buildup of toxins in your bloodstream. As your body eliminates these toxins and adjusts to the changes taking place, withdrawal symptoms occur. Medical detox helps your body safely eliminate the toxic substances, while minimizing the potential side effects that frequently occur during withdrawal.
Medications are often used during detox to help alleviate and prevent side effects. Benzodiazepines (such as Valium) are often part of withdrawal treatment. They play a vital role in treating patients suffering from delirium tremens. Because benzodiazepines have a high potential for addiction themselves, they are administered only for a short time to control withdrawal symptoms. Other medications, such as anticonvulsants and barbiturates, and supplements like magnesium, thiamine, and folic acid, also play a role in medical detox during alcohol addiction treatment.
Other treatment options for alcohol addiction
Even if you’re not likely to experience serious withdrawal symptoms, other addiction treatment options can improve your chances of a successful recovery and reduce your risk of relapse. Residential rehab programs typically offer a variety of therapeutic services in addition to medical detox. These include structured social activities, educational activities, individual therapy, group sessions, and other helpful activities. The goal is to provide a complete recovery plan within a supportive environment.
Not everyone with an alcohol addiction will experience dangerous side effects if they stop drinking. However, this doesn’t mean addiction treatment isn’t very important. Successful recovery from alcohol addiction requires a long term commitment. Treatment will give you many excellent tools — not only to help you manage your withdrawal symptoms, but to help you begin restructuring your life for a successful recovery. Addiction treatment can also ensure your health and safety as your body recovers from the debilitating effects of alcohol addiction.