On an annual basis approximately 14 million Americans are diagnosed with an Alcohol Use Disorder, and tens of millions more engage in binge drinking, problem drinking, and have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Of all the drugs that people abuse, alcohol is one of the most fatal. Approximately 100,000 Americans die from alcohol-related problems on an annual basis, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Many of these deaths result from alcohol withdrawal, which can be extremely unpleasant, dangerous and life-threatening. As such, it is imperative to be mindful of signs and symptoms of alcohol overdose and withdrawal, and when and how to seek out treatment if needed.
How Do I Know If I Have an Alcohol Use Disorder?
If you believe that you or a loved one has a dependence to alcohol, or abuse or misuse alcohol, you should seek out a mental health professional specializing in addiction. A substance abuse specialist will be able to appropriately assess you, diagnose you, and guide you to the appropriate level of care that meets your needs and affords you with safety and increased chances for a successful outcome. While one should never attempt to self-diagnose, some symptoms of an alcohol use disorder include:
- Alcohol is consumed in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
- A persistent desire or unsuccessful attempts to cut down or control alcohol use.
- Considerable time is spent obtaining alcohol, drinking alcohol, and recovering from alcohol.
- Experiencing cravings and urges to use alcohol.
- Continued alcohol use despite consequences such as not fulfilling obligations at work, school or home.
- Continued alcohol use despite social and interpersonal problems.
- Loss of interest in social or leisure activities that were once found pleasurable due to alcohol.
- Continued alcohol use in situations that are not safe, such as driving under the influence of alcohol.
- Continued alcohol use despite awareness of negative physical or psychological problems.
- An increase in tolerance due to needing more alcohol in order to produce the same desired effect at an earlier stage of alcohol use.
- Withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is not being consumed.
What Is Alcohol Overdose? What Are The Signs of Alcohol Overdose?
Alcohol use causes impairment to motor coordination, decision-making, impulse control, among other basic life functions. When alcohol is consumed in excess, it can result in overdose, sometimes also termed alcohol poisoning. An alcohol overdose occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that the brain is no longer able to function properly, thereby threating ones basic life functions such as breathing and heart rate. Some of the common signs of alcohol overdose include:
- Difficulties Breathing
- Blue Skin, Lips or Fingernails
- Irregular Heart Rate
- Mental Confusion and Disorientation
- Loss of Consciousness
- Inability to Become Alert and Oriented
- Weak Pulse
- Low Blood Pressure
- Low Body Temperature
What Is Alcohol Withdrawal? What Are The Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal?
Whereas alcohol overdose involves the resulting negative effects of the overconsumption of alcohol, alcohol withdrawal involves the resulting negative effects of the abrupt stoppage or reduction of alcohol consumption. Even infrequent mild to moderate alcohol users can experience mild withdrawal symptoms; it is in essence what a “hangover” is. The term withdrawal simply means the resulting physical and mental effects on an individual when they stop or reduce their alcohol intake. It is a normal biological response to the body metabolizing and excreting alcohol.
The greater the level of alcohol abuse in terms of quantity of alcohol consumed, frequency of alcohol consumption, and duration of alcohol consumption all play a role in determining the onset of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, the severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and the duration of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. There are also important physiological factors that will determine withdrawal symptoms, such as the individuals body mass index, gender and age. Furthermore, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary from individual to individual, but they often include some of the following symptoms:
- Increased Heart Rate
- Visual or Auditory Hallucinations
- Delirium Tremens – Marked by disorientation, confusion, hallucinations, fever, sweating, and loss of consciousness among other symptoms
What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?
Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome is the clinical diagnosis used for an individual experiencing alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome include:
- Autonomic symptoms (sweating or racing heart)
- Increased hand tremors (known as “the shakes”)
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Psychomotor agitation (feeling physically restless, inability to stop moving)
- Seizures (typically the generalized tonic-clonic type, characterized by jerking movement, especially of the limbs)
- Visual or Auditory Hallucinations
When Does Alcohol Withdrawal Begin, Peak, and End?
As mentioned above, the onset and duration of alcohol withdrawal varies from individual to individual based on a variety of factors. That being said, on average alcohol withdrawal can begin within as little as 3 to 6 hours of the last drink, peak at 24 to 72 hours, and last for up to over 10 days. Furthermore, post-acute withdrawal, which are less severe withdrawal symptoms, can last for months.
Can Alcohol Withdrawal Be Fatal?
YES! Of all the various substances that individuals abuse and go into withdrawal from, alcohol is one of the most dangerous. The more severe of a dependence to alcohol an individual has, the more dangerous alcohol withdrawal can be for them. Individuals should also be mindful of an increased risk for individuals with underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure, epilepsy and cardiovascular disease. The risk for fatality is greatest within as little as 12 hours for severe drinkers and can occur even several days into alcohol withdrawal. If an individual is experiencing any concerning withdrawal symptoms it is always best to err on the side of caution and seek out a medical professional.
How Is Alcohol Withdrawal Treated?
If you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal or at risk for experiencing alcohol withdrawal seek out a medical professional specializing in alcohol and drug detoxification. Alcohol withdrawal is predominantly treated at an inpatient setting such as a hospital, detoxification clinic, or rehabilitation center with a detox unit. Some providers allow for safe at home detox under the supervision of a doctor or nurse. In all scenarios, patient’s vitals are closely monitored to ensure safety, and medications are administered to help minimize unpleasant and unwanted withdrawal symptoms. Some common medications used in the alcohol detoxification process may include Acamprosate, Disulfiram, Diazepam (Valium), Clonidine (Catapres), Haloperidol (Haldol), Lorazepam (Ativan), Clonazepam (Klonopin), Chlordiazepoxide (Librium), and Naltrexone. Treatment may include intravenous medication and/or intravenous fluids to help prevent dehydration. It is important to drink plenty of fluids, maintain electrolyte balance, and eat nutritious foods and consider taking micronutrient supplements.
What Are Some Resources For People Who Have An Alcohol Dependence Or Are At Risk Of Experiencing Alcohol Withdrawal?
If you believe you are at immediate risk of experiencing life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, call 911.
In order to find an alcohol treatment center or alcohol detoxification center you can:
- Do an online search such as by searching for an alcohol rehab near me
- Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline 24/7 for free confidential help at 1-800-662-4357
- Call your insurance provider and ask them for a list of addiction treatment providers in your area who accept your insurance
- For alcohol addiction that may not require professional help, or for long-term support after completing treatment with an addiction specialist visit a mutual help group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, or Refuge Recovery.
- If you are the family member of a loved one struggling with alcohol or drug addiction and are in need of support please visit an Al-Anon meeting, SMART Recovery Family & Friends, or family support group for addiction in your area. It is also encouraged to seek out a family therapist specializing in addiction for your own support and to learn more about addiction and recovery.
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