What Are the Health Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal is a condition that occurs when a long-term, heavy drinker stops using alcohol. It inevitably appears in alcoholics who decide to stop drinking and seek alcohol addiction treatment. Depending on factors that include the length of alcohol use and the intensity of alcohol use, the symptoms of withdrawal can range from relatively mild to severe or even life-threatening. Unfortunately, fear of these symptoms can play a significant role in continued drinking and the avoidance of treatment. However, in the vast majority of cases, alcohol withdrawal produces more or less predictable changes in the body, and proper monitoring and medical treatment can help a recovering drinker make it through this process.
How Alcohol Affects Your Brain
Alcohol (ethyl alcohol, ethanol) is a central nervous system depressant, and it achieves its effects by slowing down normal activity in both the brain and spinal cord. If you habitually drink significant amounts of beverages that contain alcohol (beer, malt liquor, wine or distilled liquor), your central nervous system will gradually start to view its chemically altered environment as a fact of life and begin to adjust its function in response to this new reality. Classically, this adjustment involves increased production of chemicals in the brain that stimulate the central nervous system and try to offset alcohol’s depressant effects.
The long-term adjustment of your central nervous system creates a condition called physical dependence. The more you drink and/or the longer you drink, the greater the adjustment your brain will need to make; in real-world terms, this also means that you will develop a stronger form of alcohol dependence. Once dependence sets in, any substantial decrease in your alcohol intake will upset the new chemical balance in your system and create symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Common Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
The most common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are involuntary muscle tremors, a temporary hallucinatory condition called alcohol hallucinosis, and types of seizures known as alcohol withdrawal seizures. Some people develop a combination of all of these symptoms, while others develop only one or two; combined symptoms typically overlap to a certain degree.
In addition to involuntary muscle movements, people who develop tremors during alcohol withdrawal may experience symptoms that include insomnia, nightmares, nausea, vomiting, abnormally high blood pressure, an abnormally rapid pulse, abnormally rapid breathing, irritability, and anxiety. Typically, these symptoms appear within a few hours after a drinker’s last alcoholic beverage; once they appear, they can last for as long as two days.
People with relatively minor cases of alcohol dependence may experience nothing more than tremors and their related symptoms during the course of alcohol withdrawal. However, people with more severe degrees of dependence may also develop alcohol withdrawal seizures and/or alcohol hallucinosis. When seizures occur, they usually first appear sometime between a few hours and a day after a final drink, produce clusters of attacks every few hours, and fade away within two days after alcohol use stops. Alcohol hallucinosis typically sets in within half a day to a day following a final drink, then fades away after another couple of days; potential manifestations of the condition include hearing nonexistent accusatory voices, hearing nonexistent threatening voices, and seeing nonexistent bugs or other small, rapidly moving objects.
Delirium Tremens (The DTs)
Delirium tremens (the DTs) is a dangerous, potentially life-threatening complication of alcohol withdrawal that sometimes appears in unusually heavy drinkers or chronic, long-term alcoholics. It typically sets in roughly two to three days after a final drink, although some people don’t develop the condition until they’ve been alcohol-free for a week or 10 days. In addition to some of the symptoms associated with other forms of alcohol withdrawal (hallucinations, tremors, seizures), delirium tremens can produce dramatic alterations in general blood circulation, body temperature and breathing; extreme amounts of body dehydration; dangerous increases in blood pressure and heart rate; and dangerous decreases in the amount of blood reaching the brain. Without proper emergency treatment, a person going through the DTs can experience a complete collapse of heart and blood vessel function and die.
Additional Health Problems Of Alcohol Abuse
Less than half of all people going through alcohol withdrawal require some kind of active medical intervention during the withdrawal process, Medscape Reference explains. Only five percent of all people experiencing withdrawal develop delirium tremens. Typically, people who drink enough to develop symptoms of withdrawal have additional health problems related to their alcohol intake. In addition to dependence and alcoholism, these problems can include liver damage, nerve damage in the lower extremities, damage to the cardiovascular system, altered blood cell levels, stomach and/or intestinal damage, significant vitamin deficiencies, and clinical malnutrition.