Alcohol Guide: Symptoms, Detoxification and Treatment

alcohol withdrawal

Alcohol is the product of fermenting yeast, sugar and starches, creating a beverage that produces an intoxicating effect on the individual. Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused substance in America, with 86.3 % of people aged 18 and over, reporting that they have drunk alcohol at least once in their lifetime [1].  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one alcoholic drink is measured as 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of wine or malt liquor, or 1 ounce of distilled liquor (rum, vodka, whiskey, etc.). The definition of excessive drinking or alcohol abuse is more than 8 drinks per week for women or more than 15 drinks per week for men, and binge drinking is classified as 4 or more drinks on one occasion for women, and 5 or more for men. [2]

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning that it disrupts the communication between neurons inside the brain.  It is absorbed through the digestive tract into the bloodstream, where it is taken to the liver to be broken down. Once in the bloodstream, it affects every organ in the body. Only a small amount can be metabolized at a time, and the rest remains in the bloodstream to flow throughout the body until it can be processed.

Abuse Signs and Symptoms

Addiction to alcohol involves a loss of control over the individual’s drinking habits, to the detriment of their personal, professional, and physical and mental well-being.  Some of the signs that a person may have alcohol use disorder (AUD) are:

  • Drinking more or longer than intended
  • Inability to cut down or stop drinking
  • Excessive time drinking, obtaining alcohol, or being sick after drinking
  • Craved alcohol or felt the need to drink
  • Engaged in risky behavior while under the influence of alcohol
  • Stopping activities and hobbies that were once enjoyed in order to drink
  • Continued drinking in spite of health, relationship, or professional problems
  • Needing to drink more to feel the same effect over time (building a tolerance)

Physical symptoms of prolonged excessive alcohol abuse are widespread across the body.  Under the influence, the individual may have poor coordination, judgment, and speech. Memory problems and blackouts are common, as well as mood changes.  The individual’s liver is affected by metabolizing large amounts of alcohol, and it can become scarred (cirrhosis) and the individual could develop hepatitis. The heart can begin to beat irregularly (arrhythmia), and the heart muscle can begin to break down and stretch (cardiomyopathy).  High blood pressure is also prevalent. The immune system is also weakened greatly, causing the individual to be susceptible to becoming ill more frequently, and for longer periods [3].

Withdrawal and Detox

Once alcohol has been consumed regularly over a long period, tolerance builds up and the system becomes used to a certain amount being present.  Over time, the individual becomes dependent on alcohol to function, and when the use is stopped withdrawal symptoms begin after about 6 hours. The most intense symptoms occur in 24-72 hours, and they subside within a week or so.  Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are:

  • Anxiety/ irritability
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Heightened blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shaking and tremors
  • Sweating

In severe cases of withdrawal, a condition called Delerium Tremens (DT’s) can occur, affecting about 1 in 20 people [1].  This condition is very serious and potentially fatal, as it can cause seizures. No one should attempt detoxing from alcohol without medical help!  Hospitals and residential treatment centers can provide a safe and medically monitored environment to alleviate the discomfort of symptoms and ensure the individual’s well-being throughout the process.  

Treatment and Rehab

Residential treatment for alcohol use disorder offers the opportunity to begin building a solid foundation of recovery without the distractions in day to day living, as well as the benefit of being away from the environmental and social elements that promoted continued use.  A variety of evidence-based therapeutic aid and activities are utilized to help build coping skills, diminish drinking urges and triggers, and begin to uncover underlying causes of using alcohol excessively. An inpatient setting offers a more individualized and intensive level of care and provides structure and routine to begin healing and nurturing a fulfilling life after treatment.

Aftercare

After discharge from residential treatment, a solid aftercare plan written and developed with your care providers is essential to continued sobriety.  Setting up a plan for continuing therapy, on either an outpatient or intensive outpatient basis, ongoing support from groups and family/friends, how to maintain physical wellness, potential pitfalls and stressors, and identifying recovery goals are all crucial to a strong aftercare plan.  Life after residential treatment is managed by the client themselves, so the aftercare plan acts as a guide or map for the client to navigate the difficulties of early recovery and beyond.

References:

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2018, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  2. Centers for Disease Control, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
  3. NIAAA, 2019, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-body