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Alcohol Withdrawal

Condition Basics

What is alcohol withdrawal?

If you drink alcohol regularly and then cut down on how much you drink or suddenly stop drinking, you may go through some physical and emotional problems. This is called withdrawal. It happens because the alcohol is clearing out of your system. Clearing the alcohol from your body is called detoxification, or detox.

Most people may be able to cut down or stop drinking with only mild withdrawal. But people who drink large amounts of alcohol should not try to detox at home unless they work closely with a doctor to manage it. A person can die of severe alcohol withdrawal.

Before you stop drinking, talk to your doctor. It's important to tell your doctor exactly how much you have been drinking. Your doctor can help you decide if you need to detox in a medical centre where you can be supervised.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may start as soon as 6 to 24 hours after you stop drinking. Or they may not start until several days after the last drink.

Mild symptoms include:

  • Nausea.
  • Sweating.
  • Shakiness.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Intense worry.
  • Disturbed sleep.
  • Headache.

More severe symptoms include:

  • Vomiting or belly pain.
  • Being confused, upset, and cranky.
  • Changed sensations. You might feel things on your body that aren't really there. Or you may see or hear things that aren't there.
  • Trembling.
  • Being short of breath or having pain in your chest.
  • Having seizures.

Symptoms may peak within a few days. Mild symptoms can last for a few weeks. If your symptoms are severe, you'll need to see a doctor.

How is it diagnosed?

The doctor will ask about your alcohol use and your symptoms and do a physical exam. This can help the doctor decide whether you need treatment and what kind would be best.

How is alcohol withdrawal treated?

You may get medicine to treat withdrawal symptoms, whether you detox at home or in a medical centre. Medicine that treats seizures can also help. You may start with a high dose and then take smaller amounts over several days. There's also medicine that can help you avoid alcohol while you recover.

After detox, the focus shifts to staying alcohol-free. You can learn skills that help you stay sober as you recover. You also may get medicine to help you stay sober. Most people get some type of therapy, such as group counselling. Treatment doesn't focus on alcohol use alone. It may address other parts of your life, like your relationships, work, medical problems, and home life.

Finding new ways to deal with life's challenges without drinking takes time and effort. Treatment, support, patience, and commitment will help you make the changes you need to live a full life without alcohol.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • Make sure there's no alcohol in your home. This includes drinks as well as liquid medicines, rubbing alcohol, and some flavourings like vanilla extract.
  • Try not to hang out with people you used to drink with.
  • Don't go it alone. Spend time with people who support the changes you are making in your life. This includes asking for advice and help from people who have stopped drinking. You might also try mutual support groups such as LifeRing or Alcoholics Anonymous. And you can look for a counsellor who has experience helping people with alcohol use disorder.
  • Rest, drink lots of fluids, and eat healthy foods.
  • If you crave alcohol, eat snacks such as fruit, cheese and crackers, and pretzels. High-carbohydrate foods may help reduce the craving for alcohol.

Credits

Adaptation Date: 2/24/2022

Adapted By: Alberta Health Services

Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services

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