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Article Summary

The Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

When excessive alcohol consumption begins to cause problems with relationships, finances and health it may be a good idea to step back and consider the possibility that you have a problem with addiction. Alcohol abuse can destroy lives, but with enough will power and the support of health care professionals, friends and family it's possible to beat the addiction.

Unfortunately, the first step in overcoming alcohol addiction is to pass through the unpleasant process of alcohol withdrawal. Withdrawal is never easy on alcoholics, but before you begin it's important to understand what you can expect to experience in order to prepare yourself both physically and mentally for the challenges to come.

Why Does Alcohol Withdrawal Take Place?

While some mind-altering substances only result in a psychological dependence that must be broken, alcohol affects the chemistry of the brain with prolonged abuse, damaging and restructuring the neurotransmitters that balance the brain chemistry of a healthy person.

When used responsibly alcohol amplifies the effect of GABA, a neurotransmitter that calms and relaxes the mind and body. Long term alcohol abuse, however, suppresses the brain's response to GABA to the point at which alcohol tolerance develops and the user must drink more and more to achieve the same effect.

When alcoholics stop drinking they enter a state known as brain hyperexcitability, a symptom of the brain's confusion as the various neurotransmitters blocked by long term alcohol abuse attempt to restore their natural, healthy balance.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

The severity of alcohol withdrawal varies from person to person, but in general it will increase in severity and duration based on the length and intensity of the period of alcohol abuse.

The first symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can appear as little as two hours after the final drink, though more commonly they will begin to appear within 5-10 hours. In certain cases withdrawal may not begin until several days after the final drink has been taken.

Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal

1. Stage I

The first symptom of withdrawal is often tremors in the hands and legs which the sufferer will not be able to stop. This tremulous stage will usually be accompanied by feelings of restlessness and anxiety.

During this stage of withdrawal the patient my still have alcohol in his blood, but as this is expelled the symptoms will begin to worsen. Vomiting may occur, and the patient may begin to sweat profusely and begin to feel weak.

2. Stage II

Severe alcohol withdrawal may cause generalized seizures during stage II. The patient may lose consciousness, and is at risk of aspirating vomit or injuring himself during the uncontrollable seizures.

In less severe cases the patient may begin to feel severely nauseous and suffer from painful headaches. Feelings of depression may worsen, and the urge to drink will be strong.

3. Stage III

In the late stages of withdrawal the patient may experience severe visual and auditory hallucinations. Most commonly they will think there are worms or insects crawling on the walls or on their skin. While the hallucinations may be intensely disturbing the patient will usually understand, despite even the tactile sensation that may accompany the visions, that what they're seeing and feeling isn't real.

4. Stage IV

The final and most dangerous stage of withdrawal is delirium tremens (DTs), a condition suffered by only 5% of patients. DTs usually occur 48-72 hours after the last drink was taken, and they may last for several days.

Delirium tremens is an acute form of delirium characterized by intense shaking, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, increased heart rate, high blood pressure and confusion. Sufferers may experience intense and complete hallucinations during which they will have no awareness of the real world.

Without treatment, delirium tremens carries a mortality rate of as much as 35%. With treatment this drops to 15%.

The Importance of Treatment

Alcohol withdrawal is classed as a medical emergency. Without professional medical treatment and supervision the risk of severe injury and death can be high, and especially so in older and more infirm patients with pre-existing medical conditions. Certain symptoms of withdrawal can only be effectively treated with controlled substances such as benzodiazepenes, so it is unwise to attempt to go through withdrawal at home.

Before attempting to quit drinking it's vital to arrange for professional care to get safely through the most physically challenging period of recovery from alcohol addiction.

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