Long-term or heavy drinkers who want to abstain from alcohol don't just have brain-chemistry and psychological barriers to overcome when they attempt to free themselves from their addiction. An alcohol dependence also induces physical withdrawal symptoms. In many cases, those withdrawal symptoms are "just" scary and difficult to cope with. Some who develop the most serious form of alcohol withdrawal are, however, at risk of life-threatening side effects.
What are the possible symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, and who will get them?
Prolonged, heavy, and regular alcohol abuse puts people at risk of becoming both tolerant and dependent. This means they'll need larger and larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the same intoxicating effect, and will develop withdrawal symptoms if they attempt to stop — often within eight hours after they last had a drink, but sometimes days or even a week later.
The symptoms possible symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Mental symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, mood swings, and depression.
- Excessive sweating.
- Severe headaches.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- A lack of appetite.
- An increased heart rate.
- Being pale.
- Not being able to sleep properly, including nightmares and insomnia.
- A tremor, usually of your hands ("the shakes").
The best way to determine whether detoxing from alcohol on your own, or at least as an outpatient who receives medical supervision at home, is to talk to your doctor. They will ask you how much you drink and how long you've been drinking, as well as whether you've been through alcohol withdrawal before (this increases your risk of facing it again). You may well be asked to keep a drinking journal so your doctor gets an accurate picture, and medical tests may be advised before you attempt detox, too. Make sure to be honest with your doctor — it could save your life.
What medications can help people go through alcohol withdrawal?
Regardless of where you go through withdrawal, you may be offered certain medications to make the process easier. They often include:
- Benzodiazepines. These are effective at preventing some of the worst symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, and common choices include diazepam (Valium) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium). The dose you are offered will depend on the severity of your alcohol use.
- Haloperidol (Haldol), an antipsychotic, can be offered to people who experience hallucinations during the alcohol withdrawal process.
- Atenolol (Tenormin) is a beta blocker that has been shown to reduce alcohol cravings and help save you from the worst of withdrawal. People suffering from coronary heart disease may also be prescribed this drug to help manage the cardiovascular side effects of alcohol withdrawal.
- Gabapentin, an anti-seizure medication, can also be employed during the withdrawal process.
- Thiamine (vitamin B1) and multivitamin supplements are often recommended at this time, as well.
While these medications can make alcohol withdrawal both safer and less arduous, their use requires close medical supervision, and recovering alcoholics who were prescribed benzodiazepines will need to taper off the benzos, too. It is not difficult to see why it is so important that someone going through alcohol withdrawal shouldn't attempt the process on their own!
You will need a doctor's support and supervision even if you are cleared to detox at home, as well as social and practical support from a relative or someone close to you. Besides monitoring your physical health, including by making sure you stay hydrated and eat something, they should watch out for signs of a mental health crisis, including suicidal feelings.
People whose alcohol use is especially prolonged or heavy — such as those who have been drinking 25, 30, or more units of alcohol each day — have a higher risk of experiencing severe forms of alcohol withdrawal, meanwhile. In these cases, it is strongly recommended that you go through withdrawal as an inpatient, so that doctors can keep a close eye on you and offer immediate intervention where needed.