What is alcohol withdrawal syndrome?
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a set of symptoms that people can have when they stop drinking. Often it occurs in people who have had an alcohol abuse problem for weeks, months, or years. People who only drink once in a while rarely have withdrawal. People who have gone through withdrawal before are more likely to have symptoms each time they quit drinking.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms
Symptoms can be mild or severe, and may include:
- nausea and vomiting
- trouble sleeping
- decreased appetite
- change in heart rate (too fast or too slow)
More severe withdrawal symptoms may also include fever, convulsions, and delirium tremens (DTs). DTs can cause confusion, panic, and hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t real). DTs can be very serious if a doctor does not treat them.
Path to improved health
Talk to your doctor if you think you are going through alcohol withdrawal. It does not matter if your symptoms are mild or severe. The doctor needs to know your problem and if you have had it before. They will treat and manage your symptoms to make sure they don’t lead to other health problems. If you go through withdrawal more than once and don’t receive treatment, your symptoms can get worse each time.
Tell your doctor if you have:
- An infection, such as HIV.
- Heart disease.
- Lung disease.
- A history of seizures.
- Other health problems.
- A history of alcohol and drug abuse. People who quit using drugs and alcohol at the same time can have worse withdrawal symptoms. This applies to tobacco, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs.
Talk to your doctor before you quit. He or she can provide the support you need to succeed in your efforts to quit drinking. They help manage your withdrawal symptoms to prevent more serious health problems. Your doctor may prescribe medicine to treat your symptoms. Medicines can help control shakiness, anxiety, and confusion. It can help to take these medicines early on in your withdrawal period. They can keep symptoms from getting worse or lasting as long.
Three medicines that can help with alcohol dependency are:
- Disulfiram (brand name: Antabuse) creates an unpleasant effect even when you consume only a small amount of alcohol.
- Acamprosate can be used with counselling to help readjust the brain to prevent you from drinking.
- Naltrexone (two brand names: Revia or Vivitrol) reduces cravings and blocks the alcohol “high.”
People who have severe withdrawal often need to go to the hospital. They may need fluids to prevent or treat dehydration. They may need medicines, as well, to treat the symptoms. These often are given through an IV. Your doctor can tell you what level of testing or treatment you need.
Things to consider
The urge to drink again during withdrawal can be very strong. Support from family and friends can help you resist that urge. It’s important to avoid any triggers or situations that may make you want alcohol. This could mean avoiding certain places or people.
After withdrawal symptoms go away, you may need more treatment. You can join a support group or sobriety program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. These programs can help prevent relapse.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How bad is my alcohol withdrawal?
- What type of treatment do I need?
- How long do symptoms and treatment last?
- If I have had alcohol withdrawal syndrome, what is my risk of having it again?
- What types of health problems are linked to alcohol withdrawal syndrome?
Funding provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cooperative agreement number NU84DD000010.
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.