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Alcohol Withdrawal

Alternate Names

  • DTs
  • delirium tremens

Definition

Alcohol withdrawal is a set of symptoms that may occur when a person suddenly stops drinking after using alcohol for a long time.

What is going on in the body?

When a person has been drinking to excess for several months or years, his or her body comes to rely on alcohol and its effects. Alcohol is a depressant that acts like a sedative or tranquilizer on the body. When the intake of alcohol is suddenly stopped, the body may go through withdrawal.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Alcohol withdrawal rarely occurs in a person who only drinks once in a while. Someone who has gone through alcohol withdrawal before is more likely to have withdrawal symptoms each time he or she quits drinking alcohol.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

A person can prevent alcohol withdrawal by not drinking alcohol excessively. A person with alcoholism who wishes to stop drinking should consult his or her healthcare professional. Certain treatment and programs may curtail alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

Diagnosis of alcohol withdrawal begins with a history and physical exam. While there is no test to determine if a person is an alcoholic, the negative effects of alcohol on the body can be seen. Liver function tests can measure liver damage. An MRI or ultrasound, can check the different organs inside the body for damage.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Alcohol withdrawal can lead to DTs, which can be fatal if untreated. A person may find it hard to handle stressful situations and may begin drinking again.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Alcohol withdrawal is not contagious, and poses no direct risk to others.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

The goals of treatment are to treat the immediate withdrawal symptoms, to prevent complications, and to begin long-term preventive treatment.
In mild forms of alcohol withdrawal, medicine may be given to make the person feel less agitated.
A person with more severe forms of withdrawal needs to be hospitalized during the period of detoxification. The person is usually given central nervous system depressants and sedatives to reduce the symptoms.
Vitamin deficiency causes potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Healthcare professionals in emergency departments usually give large intravenous doses of vitamins C and B, as well as thiamine.
Close monitoring of the pulse, breathing, temperature, and blood pressure is important during the first stages of alcohol withdrawal. After the urgent medical problems are resolved, a detoxification and rehabilitation program should be started. In the first phase of treatment, alcohol is completely withdrawn. Then an alcoholic has to change his or her behavior. Self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are encouraged.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Side effects vary, depending on the medicines used. For instance, antidepressants may cause irritability and shakiness. Sedatives can be addicting.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

A person who completes treatment often will continue some form of counseling or self-help group. The individual will often voluntarily continue to attend self-help groups for the rest of his or her life. A person who starts drinking again will most likely go through alcohol withdrawal again.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.

Sources

"Introduction to Alcohol Withdrawal", [hyperLink url="http://silk.nih.gov/silk/niaaa1/publication/iss22-1.htm" linkTitle="silk.nih.gov/silk/niaaa1/publication/iss22-1.htm"] silk.nih.gov/silk/niaaa1/publication/iss22-1.htm[/hyperLink]

Tierney, Lawrence, editor, "Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 39th edition", 2000

The Merck Manual of Medical Information, 1997

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