When a person struggles with drinking too much on a regular basis, especially if they are unable to stop, they may have developed an alcohol use disorder. Attempting to stop this addiction can lead to alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which is a cluster of physical symptoms as the body attempts to regulate itself without the influence of alcohol. This condition can be physically dangerous. To successfully detox from alcohol without putting oneself at risk of relapse or delirium tremens, it is important to work with a medical professional.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can present in a few different ways. Common, uncomfortable but not dangerous symptoms include:
- Anxiety, irritability, or mood swings
- Shaking, tremors, or weakness
- Not thinking clearly
- Fatigue or exhaustion
These symptoms may appear similar to a hangover, although they will persist much longer than 24 hours. Additionally, a person experiencing alcohol withdrawal syndrome may develop symptoms like:
- Clammy skin
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid heartbeat
These symptoms can last up to two weeks, and overall, they feel like a strong flu. However, people who drank consistently high volumes of alcohol or who struggled with alcohol use disorder for a long time are at risk of developing delirium tremens. This is an increase in the severity of withdrawal symptoms, as well as dangerous symptoms like:
- Severe confusion
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are caused by the brain’s and body’s dependence on, and tolerance to, alcohol’s presence in the system. Without alcohol, brain and body chemistry must normalize on its own, and that can lead to symptoms as the body attempts to recover routine processes. For example, the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is suppressed by alcohol when a person drinks regularly. As the neurotransmitter is able to be absorbed by neuron receptors more readily, the brain becomes excited. This can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, agitation, paranoia, and seizures.
The neurotransmitter glutamate is also suppressed by the presence of alcohol when a person drinks heavily and consistently. When alcohol is no longer present, glutamate can cause excitability and irritability. Changes in other neurotransmitters affect mood, visual processing, and memory. The structures of the brain may also have been damaged due to consistent changes in brain chemistry over a long period of time, so a person ending their struggle with an alcohol use disorder may have cognitive difficulties or personality changes that persist after detox.
The most common and effective treatment to assist in detoxing from alcohol is a benzodiazepine taper. Many clinicians will prescribe a long-acting benzodiazepine like diazepam (Valium) to maintain processing of the GABA neurotransmitter. The doctor will then work with the patient to taper the benzodiazepine dose; this helps to reduce withdrawal symptoms, especially anxiety and insomnia, and it has the added benefit of preventing seizures. The taper allows the individual’s body to slowly adjust to working without the presence of alcohol.
In some cases, a person may receive a prescription for an antidepressant or an antipsychotic medication, which can improve mood while the individual enters rehabilitation to overcome the addiction.