The fact that alcohol is sold openly and used extensively at social gatherings contributes to the fact that many people forget that it is a powerful drug. Like many drugs, it can be abused. When people drink too much alcohol regularly, they can develop alcohol withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop.
Alcohol withdrawal is the body's natural response when there is no alcohol in the bloodstream after prolonged alcohol consumption. During the course of abuse, an alcoholic's body will be changed physically and chemically by regular exposure to this drug. These changes are gradual, and the body adjusts to cope with the presence of alcohol. Because of these changes, the body regards the presence of alcohol as normal. When the alcohol is withdrawn, this induces a severe reaction as the body tries to rapidly readjust. This is the process known as alcohol withdrawal.
During withdrawal, the body is effectively in a crisis state, and behaving as if it were under a microbial attack. All the defense mechanisms are triggered, and the pain and fever produced are not unlike the symptoms of severe flu. Just as flu can be fatal, so too can alcohol withdrawal be lethal.
Physical discomfort is accompanied by severe mental turbulence. During withdrawal, alcoholics are often in a state of total confusion. They are delirious, suffering from vivid hallucinations, and they may also have bouts of severe paranoia and suicidal feelings. During these phases they are at risk of causing injury to themselves. They can also cause injury to others by striking out at imagined enemies during episodes of paranoia.
There are extreme physical reactions that can also cause damage. Delirium tremens (the DTs) frequently occurs. During these phases, the withdrawing alcoholic is delirious and the delirium is accompanied by incontrollable shaking (the meaning of "tremens"). The withdrawing alcoholic is at risk of suffering seizures that are fatal in some cases.
Almost every withdrawing alcoholic will experience some degree of discomfort during withdrawal. People who have been drinking the most will tend to experience the worst symptoms.
Alcoholism normally develops gradually, and many months or years of abuse can occur before a person becomes addicted. In many cases, by the time an alcoholic seeks help, he or she will be consuming large volumes of alcohol each day, and drinking round the clock. People who have reached that level of addiction are likely to have the most severe withdrawals.
It is clear that alcohol withdrawal is a traumatic event, and medical experts would advise that alcoholics should look for professional help in getting sober. The initial step will be to stop the intake of alcohol.
This can be extremely challenging for alcoholics. Apart from the likelihood of painful withdrawal symptoms, they have to cope with the most overwhelming urges to drink. Alcoholics who try to get dry without help will have a very high risk of relapse during withdrawal.
Residential medical detoxification programs are the best way to get through withdrawal successfully. Patients are given medications to counter withdrawal reactions. At the outset, patients will receive high dosages of an opioid drug such as Valium. Patients are then monitored day and night, and given additional opioids as required. This alleviates much of the pain and discomfort caused by withdrawal. Patients may be given a drug like Neurontin to prevent the onset of potentially fatal seizures.