When a habitually heavy drinker stops consuming alcohol suddenly, he or she is subject to uncomfortable and even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal occurs because habitual use of alcohol inhibits brain activity. When alcohol is abruptly removed and brain activity resumes, stress hormones are overproduced and the patient's central nervous system becomes overexcited. Aggressive behavior, tremors, changes in heartbeat and blood pressure, and a host of other symptoms result. Seizures and delirium tremens are among the most threatening effects.
What They Provide
At alcohol detox centers, treatment for severe withdrawal symptoms usually includes anti-anxiety drugs known as benzodiazepines. These drugs inhibit nerve-cell excitability in the brain and reduce the risk of seizures. The patient must be carefully monitored and dosage adjusted according to need, in order to prevent a secondary addiction to the drug. Anti-seizure medications and beta blockers (to slow the heart rate) are sometimes used in conjunction with anti-anxiety medications.
Drugs are generally administered intravenously, so that they can take effect quickly and in appropriate dosages. Injections of vitamin B1 are often administered as well, to prevent Kosakoff's psychosis, a common withdrawal symptom characterized by hallucinations and highly aggressive behavior.
Why It's Important
Whenever someone with alcoholism experiences symptoms of withdrawal, they must be treated promptly. Left untreated, the severity is likely to increase, resulting in serious medical conditions and even death. Delirium tremens has a fatality rate as high as 20 percent without prompt medical intervention. If you or someone you love exhibits signs of alcohol withdrawal, get the person to a hospital or alcohol detox center at once.