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Get help for alcohol withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal often comes with strong cravings and severe symptoms. Medicines and other medical support can make this time easier on your body and mind.

Giving up alcohol can be a great thing for a person's health. But it might not be easy, especially for a person whose body has become dependent on alcohol. In these cases, the body may react severely when a person stops drinking.

This reaction is called alcohol withdrawal syndrome. It usually shows up when people stop drinking alcohol suddenly after weeks or months of heavy use, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Symptoms can range from tremors and irritability to life-threatening seizures.

Because the symptoms may progress from mild to severe over a few days, it's always best to see a doctor if you have any symptoms at all. Even if symptoms never get severe, treatment may help ease them.

What's going on?

Alcohol suppresses, or slows down, the central nervous system—the control center for movement, sensory perceptions (such as hearing, taste and touch) and the functions of many organs.

After months or years of being suppressed by alcohol, the nervous system may become suddenly overactive if alcohol is withdrawn. In mild cases, this surge in nervous system activity may cause insomnia, irritability, sweating, nausea and tremors. In severe cases, it can cause a serious condition called delirium tremens (DTs). Symptoms of DTs can include profound confusion, hallucinations and seizures.

Symptoms of withdrawal can start as soon as a few hours after a person's last drink and can last for several days. 

How can a doctor help?

A doctor may prescribe sedative or anti-anxiety medicines to ease the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal or recommend going to a hospital or treatment center.

These recommendations depend on a variety of factors. For people at high risk of life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, hospital stays are often recommended. A doctor may recommend some form of out-of-home care if a person's home life is disruptive or if getting to a treatment center or doctor would be difficult on short notice.

When withdrawal is over, a doctor can prescribe medicines, counseling and support groups to help with long-term sobriety.

Worth the withdrawal

Though withdrawal can cause a few days of symptoms, continuing to drink can lead to far more serious concerns. From ulcers, liver disease and cancer to dementia, career problems, lost relationships and accidents, problem drinking can steal away quality and quantity of life.

If you have symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, talk to your doctor. If you need help finding a treatment program, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Behavioral Health Treatment Services Facility Locator.

reviewed 9/23/2019

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