Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: Unveiling its potentially debilitating effects

People who have been indulging heavily in drinking for weeks, months or years often suffer from a potentially life-threatening condition known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), when they try to stop or significantly reduce their alcohol intake. Surprisingly, about 15 percent of the people in the western world suffer from alcohol problem and about half of them get withdrawal symptoms upon cessation or decreasing alcohol use.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has defined heavy drinking as more than eight drinks per week for women and more than 15 drinks per week for men. But people who are addicted to alcohol even go beyond this level. Though AWS is most commonly seen in adults, anyone who drinks excessively, including children, teenagers and elderly, can be affected by it.

AWS can be life-threatening, if left untreated

According to the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol (CIWA),  AWS can cause a combination of physical and emotional symptoms, such as anxiety, sweating, fever, fast heart-beat, tremors, vomiting, fatigue, nausea, irritability, confusion, insomnia, nightmares and high blood pressure. But the most severe withdrawal syndrome is known as delirium tremens, which causes symptoms such as extreme agitation, tactile hallucinations means having sense of itching, burning, or numbness, confusion, etc. AWS can be life-threatening, if left untreated for a prolonged time period.

Causes of AWS

Individuals who are addicted to alcohol have their brain re-wired in a way that they become totally dependent on it. Heavy drinking stimulates nervous system of drinkers to drink more. In the lack of alcohol, these people feel impatient and irritated, as the brain which is adapted to drinking is unable to adjust to the needs.

During periods of high alcohol intake, various adaptions and deviations occur in the brain’s neurochemistry, particularly in the GABAergic system responsible for releasing or binding GABA as a neurotransmitter. These adaptations cause changes in the gene expression as well as down regulation of GABAA receptors. A sudden unplanned cessation or decrease in alcohol intake causes decreased responsiveness of GABA receptors in the brain, resulting in AWS.

Severity of AWS symptoms decide treatment modalities

The severity of the symptoms one experiences normally depends upon how much quantity and for how long one was addicted to alcohol before withdrawal. The key objective of AWS treatment is to make the person undergoing alcohol withdrawal relaxed and manage his or her symptoms under the supervision of a trained medical practitioner. However, in the case of complications, patients might need to get intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and medications for the ease of symptoms.

Doctors usually prescribe sedatives, known as benzodiazepines, to treat typical AWS symptoms. Most common benzodiazepines are Ativan (lorazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Xanax (alprazolam) and  Valium (diazepam).

Excessive alcohol use can often deplete essential vitamins. So, vitamin supplements are also given as a substitute. Though sleep disturbances, irritability and fatigue can continue for a number of months, most of the people with AWS who are otherwise healthy do not get chronic symptoms and can recover completely.

Leading an alcohol-free life

Though AWS symptoms are manageable in a mild state, it is better to prevent a further worsening of the symptoms by following an expert’s advice.

If you are suffering from an AUD or alcohol addiction and looking for a rehab center that can help you in recovering from your condition, the Florida Alcohol Addiction Helpline can assist you with details about various alcohol rehabs in Florida. You may call us at our 24/7 helpline number 866-220-5381 or chat online with our experts to get complete information on the best alcohol treatment centers in Florida.