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Alcohol Withdrawal

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

What is alcohol withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is a group of symptoms that occur when you drink alcohol daily and suddenly stop drinking. It can begin within 5 hours of your last drink and gets worse over 2 to 3 days. Withdrawal may also happen if you suddenly reduce the amount of alcohol that you normally drink.

What are the signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?

The signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal normally start 4 to 24 hours after you stop drinking. The symptoms may be mild at first, and get worse as your body goes through the detoxification process. Detoxification means your body is working to remove the alcohol. Severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are often called delirium tremens (DTs). DTs usually occur 3 to 4 days after you stop drinking. You may have any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Headache

  • Fever, sweating, shakiness, and a fast heartbeat

  • Confusion and trouble remembering

  • Nervousness, anxiety, and agitation

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Hallucinations (you see, hear, feel, or taste things that are not there)

  • Poor sleep, restlessness, or nightmares

  • Seizures 24 hours to 1 week after your last drink

  • DTs include fever, severe restlessness, agitation, tremors, constant hallucinations, increased heartbeat, and breathing faster than usual

How is alcohol withdrawal diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask questions about your alcohol intake. He may ask how much and how often you drink. He will also ask how long it has been since you had your last drink.

  • Blood or urine tests may be needed to check the amount of alcohol in your body. The tests can also show if you have low levels of vitamins and electrolytes, or organ damage. The liver and pancreas are commonly damaged by alcohol.

  • A neurologic exam can show healthcare providers how well your brain is working during your alcohol withdrawal. This test is also called neuro signs, neuro checks, or neuro status. Healthcare providers will check how your pupils react to light. They may check your memory, balance, and hand grasp.

How is alcohol withdrawal treated?

The goal of treatment is to manage your symptoms and help prevent severe symptoms from developing. Medicines may be given to calm you and help manage your symptoms. Vitamin supplements, such as thiamine, may be recommended because high alcohol intake can keep your body from absorbing enough vitamins from food. You may need to be treated in the hospital if you have severe withdrawal symptoms.

What are the risks of alcohol withdrawal?

You may act out violently when you go through alcohol withdrawal. You may harm yourself and others. You can have high fevers, abnormal heartbeats, and hallucinations. Severe alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening.

Where can I find support and more information?

  • Alcoholics Anonymous
    Web Address: http://www.aa.org

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • You feel like you want to harm yourself or others.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have sudden chest pain or trouble breathing.

  • Your breathing or heartbeat is faster than usual.

  • You pass out or think you had a seizure.

  • You are confused, hallucinating, or extremely agitated.

  • You cannot stop vomiting, or you vomit blood.

  • You are shaking and it does not get better after you take your medicine.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You keep drinking to avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

  • You need help to stop drinking alcohol.

  • You have trouble with work, relationships, or school because you drink too much alcohol.

  • You get into fights because of alcohol.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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