What is alcohol withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal is a condition that occurs in people who drink alcohol regularly for a long period of time and suddenly stop consuming alcohol. Adult men are most commonly affected. The main symptoms are nervousness, feelings of anxiety, agitation, depressed mood, feeling weak, nightmares and mood swings. Alcohol withdrawal may cause serious complications which are potentially life-threatening.
The main cause for alcohol withdrawal is a sudden stop of alcohol consumption by someone who drinks alcohol. Alcohol affects the nervous system by disrupting certain brain messaging chemicals, called neurotransmitters. After a certain period of daily drinking, the body becomes dependent on alcohol and its effects. If the consumption of alcohol is reduced significantly, these neurotransmitters are no longer disrupted, which may cause a series of symptoms. This condition can affect any person who drinks consistently large amounts of alcohol. People who are younger than 18 years of age, who have other health problems, who have recently been drinking much more than usual, or who have previous withdrawal-related seizures are at a higher risk of the severe withdrawal syndrome, delirium tremens.
Typical symptoms include a feeling of nervousness, irritability, a racing heart, excessive sweating, nausea and vomiting. Affected people may also have a tremor, confusion or mood swings. These symptoms are usually worse on the second day after giving up alcohol, and pass by the fifth day. 'Delirium tremens' is a term used to describe the severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which include fever, slowed breathing, heart rhythm disturbances, hallucinations and seizures. These symptoms come on between 48 and 72 hours after stopping alcohol, and can be life-threatening.
The diagnosis is made by a doctor assessing the symptoms and doing a physical examination.
Mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be managed at home, though it is recommended to get advice from a doctor before suddenly giving up alcohol, and urgently seek advice if any of the symptoms are troublesome. If the person withdrawing from alcohol develops any confusion or agitation, this could be a sign that they need urgent medical review and treatment in hospital while they withdraw from alcohol. The severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are treated with medications that prevent seizures and the nutritional supplement thiamine.
Alcohol withdrawal can be prevented by avoiding excessive alcohol use. If a person who drinks regularly wants to or must suddenly stop drinking (eg. when admitted to hospital), it is important to get the advice and help of a doctor to safely manage the withdrawal period.
Other names for alcohol withdrawal
- Alcohol withdrawal syndrome