The Perils of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal is a serious condition that may rapidly become life threatening.

When an alcoholic is at last ready to break his or her addiction to alcohol, the separation can produce immediate, intense symptoms. There are four phases to what is known as “alcohol withdrawal syndrome”  that people may go through, depending upon how much they’ve been drinking and for how long. Those who believe that because it is a legal substance alcohol is a harmless, have never witnessed the body experiencing alcohol withdrawal.

Stage One

The first stage of alcohol withdrawal is marked by tremors. These tremors usually begin eight to 12 hours after the person has stopped consuming alcohol. The tremors can be made worse if the person experiences any kind of agitation. Other symptoms of the first stage of withdrawal include headache, nausea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, heavy sweating, insomnia and anxiety. Typically, these symptoms will begin to wane after the initial 24 hours.

Stage Two

The second stage of withdrawal is marked by hallucinations. Hallucinations tend to begin 12 to 24 hours after the person stops drinking. Hallucinations are experienced by one-fourth of alcohol-dependent people in withdrawal. In stage two, the person may hear or see things that are not there, but these instances are punctuated by periods of clear-headed understanding. Patients in stage two often continue to experience symptoms from stage one and those symptoms may  worsen during this time.

Stage Three

Seizures occur in the third stage of alcohol withdrawal. This stage may begin six to 48 hours after cessation of alcohol intake. Seizures affect 10 percent of withdrawal patients and they are sometimes referred to as “rum fits.” Rather than a single seizure, this stage usually sees the person undergo several generalized seizures.

Stage Four

The last stage of alcohol withdrawal syndrome is known as delirium tremens. About 30 percent of patients experience the fourth stage of withdrawal and this phase can begin from three to four days after a person stops drinking to as long as two weeks afterward. Symptoms of stage-four withdrawal include tremors, inattention, confusion, hallucination, fever, rapid heartbeat, sweating and pupil dilation. If the person is not receiving medical care, this stage can be deadly.  About 15 percent of those in stage four who do not get medical treatment will die, mostly from respiratory or cardiovascular collapse.

Medicines called benzodiazepines can lessen alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Commonly used medicines in this group include chlordiazepoxide (Librium) and lorazepam (Ativan).

Most alcohol abusers who are having withdrawal symptoms have a shortage of several vitamins and minerals and can benefit from nutritional supplements. In particular, alcohol abuse can create a shortage of folate, thiamine, magnesium, zinc and phosphate. It also can cause low blood sugar.

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