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How to treat alcohol withdrawal

Drinkers who become physically dependent on alcohol will go through a period of withdrawal upon cessation or significantly lowered consumption of beer, wine, or spirits. Typically, most cases of alcohol withdrawal require a watch-and-wait supervision to treat symptoms as they occur. However, in cases of heavy or long-term drinking, medical intervention may be required to prevent very serious conditions: seizures or delirium tremens.

So, how is alcohol withdrawal treated? Read on for details on the basic protocol of how to withdraw from alcohol here. Then, we invite your questions or comments about alcohol withdrawal treatment at the end.

Effects of withdrawal from alcohol

Q:What’s alcohol withdrawal?

A: A set of symptoms which occur in someone alcohol dependent after they slow down or significantly decrease drinking.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually occur within 8 hours after the last drink, but can last for many days. Symptoms usually peak by 24 – 48 hours and then diminish, but some symptoms persist for weeks. Symptoms that persist beyond acute withdrawal are called “protracted” or “post-acute” withdrawal symptoms, and are usually related to sleeping or mood, disorders.

How well a person does during and after alcohol withdrawal depends on the amount of organ damage, the duration, frequency and amounts of alcohol used in the past, underlying psycho-emotional issues, and whether or not the person can stop drinking completely. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms range from a mild and uncomfortable disorder to serious, life-threatening conditions.

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Withdrawal symptoms for alcohol

Some drinkers that consume alcohol in quantities outside healthy limits will experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome when they abruptly stop or substantially reduce their alcohol consumption. Most patients manifest a minor symptom complex or syndrome, which may start as early as six to eight hours after an abrupt reduction in alcohol intake. Signals of alcohol withdrawal may include any combination of generalized hyperactivity, anxiety, tremor, sweating, nausea, retching, tachycardia, hypertension and mild pyrexia.

The most common effects of withdrawal from alcohol include:

  • agitation
  • anxiety or nervousness
  • depression
  • difficulty concentrating
  • disorientation
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • heightened
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • irritability
  • jumpiness or shakiness
  • mood swings
  • nausea
  • nightmares
  • not thinking clearly
  • sweating
  • tremors
  • vomiting

Plus, a more serious set of withdrawal symptoms can occur in heavy drinkers or long-term drinkers: hallucinations and
convulsions. While treatable, serious withdrawal episodes may contribute to the development of negative health consequences. Alcohol detox should be followed by psychological and behavioral interventions/treatment to prevent further complications and to end the cycle of harmful drinking.

How to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms

The primary goals of treating alcoholics during withdrawal are to prevent the occurrence of seizures and delirium tremens and to address discomfort related to both autonomic instability (increased heart rate or blood pressure, sweating, vomiting) and psychological instability (anxiety). The main goals of treatment include:

1. Reducing the intensity or severity of withdrawal symptoms.
2. Preventing complications of alcohol use.
3. Providing therapy to help you stop drinking (abstinence).

Any patients going through alcohol withdrawal should receive a physical examination to detect conditions such as irregular heartbeat, inadequate heart function, liver disease, pancreatic disease, infectious diseases, digestive system bleeding, and/or nervous system impairment. Vital signs should be stabilized and disturbances of water and nutritional balances corrected. Additionally, anyone being being treated for alcohol withdrawal should be given 100 mg of thiamine as soon as treatment begins; a magnesium supplement may help improve general withdrawal symptoms, as can an oral multivitamin formula containing folic acid (for a few weeks).

Moderate cases of alcohol withdrawal and treatment

If you experience mild-to-moderate alcohol withdrawal symptoms, you can often be treated in an outpatient setting. You will need someone to commit to staying with you during this process and who can keep an eye on you. Daily visits to your health care provider are often needed until you are stable. It is important that people who complete alcohol withdrawal can continue care in a living situation that helps support them in staying sober. Some areas have housing options that provide a supportive environment for those trying to stay sober. Nonetheless, the acute treatment for mild cases of alcohol withdrawal usually includes:

  • blood tests
  • patient and family counseling to discuss the long-term issue of alcoholism
  • sedative drugs to help ease withdrawal symptoms
  • testing and treatment for other medical problems linked to alcohol use

Serious cases of alcohol withdrawal and treatment

Clinicians have used numerous strategies to manage alcohol withdrawal. People with moderate-to-severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may need inpatient treatment at a hospital or other facility that treats alcohol withdrawal. You will be watched closely for hallucinations and other signs of delirium tremens. Treatment may include:

  1. administration of fluids or medications through a vein (by IV)
  2. monitoring of blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, and blood levels of different chemicals in the body
  3. sedation using medication called benzodiazepines until withdrawal is complete

The best way to withdraw from alcohol

The best way to stop drinking after you develop physical dependence is UNDER MEDICAL SUPERVISION. Neurologists, psychiatrists and general physicians are trained in monitoring alcohol detox and identifying signs of complications…and then treating them. Appropriate treatment of alcohol withdrawal can ease discomfort, prevent the development of more serious symptoms, and put off cumulative effects that might worsen future withdrawals. And because alcohol withdrawal can quickly and unexpectedly take a serious turn for the worse, always seek medical help anytime you need to withdraw from alcohol.

Alcohol withdrawal treatment questions

We hope that you have found this article useful. If you still have questions about alcohol withdrawal treatment, please leave them in the section below. We doour best to respond to all questions with a personal and prompt response.

Reference Sources: NIAAA; Exploring alcohol withdrawal
NIH: Kindling in Alcohol Withdrawal
PubMed: Acute Alcohol Withdrawal
MedlinePlus: Alcohol withdrawal
NIAAA: Treatment of alcohol withdrawal

Photo credit: Kathea Pinto

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6 Responses to “How to treat alcohol withdrawal
10:47 am January 23rd, 2015

Is it possible that my over thinking or this thing that keep popping out of my mind is a sign of depression or mental disorder due to my alcohol addiction? Anyone can answer that i’m just new to alcohol and has been drinking for around couple of months now and I just stopped drinking last week.

11:06 pm February 8th, 2015

im drinkig off and on for 30 jears now for mij fam it is a very teribble time if i doo so as the jears past i lowerd the amound wich resolted in 4 bott 350ml guisness stout still im drunk after such a small amount as an problem drinker u can never know wen i will react the habbet seems tu come from the left side off the brain every treatment helped but ju never know wen a problem acure it can be a song that can bring good or bad mamories counnselers are the wurst nightmare in mij case and stil i hope after 30 jears too come with a solution regulary checked bij docters imhealty littel over weight but ready too and this madness thanks for the opertuaty given too write but hopefully ju can come with a straight answer

3:21 pm February 10th, 2015

Hi Noel. I had a hard time understanding your comment, but I believe you say you are being regularly checked by a doctor. That’s good. Maybe your doctor can ferer you to a facility that can treat your problem with alcohol and help you stop drinking for good. All the best, Noel.

9:44 pm February 20th, 2016

Is it advised to taper off alcohol rather than going cold turkey? The withdrawal symptoms / DTs sound terrifying!
I have been reading articles by the HAMS org and they have recommended a slow taper process rather than quitting and going through the expensive and embarrassing detox route. I have been drinking get at least a pint of whiskey or more a night for about 10 years. Thanks

1:09 am October 30th, 2017

Hi – I started a self detox but I felt so bad at the end day one Ive decided by 2 I needed a large gin in the morning – just to lessen the shakes – so now at end of day two I feel fifty per cent better and as its tapered the drinking will be zero I plan by weeks end. The shakes are starting to go so therefore I can produce this on a fidly mobile phone. However of an evening when at work Im having halucination. Porn is coming up in video on the walls and windows and I see a naked group of people cavorting outside (I know you wont laugh). How long do think it may be before they subside? I have several periods of alcohol dependency and Im 54 years of age – I cant go to rehab so would the doctor prescribe any anti – hallucogenics? Regards – Dave

Lydia @ Addiction Blog
2:41 pm November 24th, 2017

Hi Dave. Call a toll-free Alcohol Helpline on 1-888-675-1820 to find a high-quality alcohol addiction treatment program. This helpline is accessible 24/7 and gives you the chance to speak with trusted treatment consultants who can help you find an alcohol recovery program suited to your individual needs.

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