In the United States, an estimated 5.6 percent of people over the age of 18 have Alcohol Use Disorder, known as AUD (1), formerly called alcohol addiction or alcoholism. This means that more than 18.5 million people domestically have difficulty stopping or controlling their alcohol consumption. A further 26 percent of the same age group report having engaged in binge drinking in the past month, and 6.3 percent saying they’ve used alcohol to a heavy or excessive degree.
If you or someone you know is one of these millions, or are merely considering the choice to quit drinking, it can be one of the healthiest choices a person can make. It can also be fatally dangerous.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal
For those who drink heavily or frequently, suddenly stopping alcohol consumption leads to a condition referred to as acute alcohol withdrawal, or AW (2). AW is a disruption to the central nervous system that results from stopping drinking after using on a regular basis for months or years.
Risks of Alcohol Withdrawal
The dangers of AW (3) vary widely from person to person and are frequently unpredictable. It is worth noting that alcohol is one of the few drugs which can be fatal to withdrawal from, the only others being barbiturates and benzodiazepines.
Common symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal include:
- Sleep disturbances
- Alterations in mood – agitation, hypervigilance, irritability
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
These symptoms will usually abate within a few hours to a few days after the last drink. While these are generally manageable for anyone quitting drinking on their own, the more serious symptoms are not.
Severe symptoms of Alcohol WIthdrawal include:
- Memory loss or memory disturbances
- Hallucinosis – visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations
- Delirium tremens (DT’s) – disorientation and confusion, tachycardia or rapid heart rate, fever and dangerously elevated blood pressure
Severe symptoms can last for several days after the final drink and can occur at unpredictable times. A person may experience only mild complications, only to have heart failure as the result of DT’s.
How to Stop Drinking Safely
If you intend to stop drinking, it’s best to do so with the aid of a physician due to the unforeseeable hazards. There are numerous treatment choices available:
- Medical detox – A supervised environment wherein you can be monitored by knowledgeable staff who will be able to provide care should complications arise.
- Partial Hospitalization (PHP) – Allows the individual to live at home but commute to a care facility during the day to monitor and manage their physical state.
- Intensive Outpatient (IOP) or Outpatient (OP) – Similar to PHP, the IOP and OP programs allow patients to live at home while going to a care center to assist them in managing their mental and physical health.
For those who do wish to stop drinking on their own, it is suggested that a tapering process be undertaken, in which the amount of alcohol consumed is gradually reduced. Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) can also be prescribed by your doctor to help facilitate the process.
Though the initial process of quitting drinking is difficult, once the discomfort and danger have passed, most people’s bodies will heal on their own, leaving minimal long-term issues. Greater mental clarity will soon come about, along with enhanced physical health.
Living without alcohol is a lifelong process, but the benefits greatly outweigh the costs and can provide a fuller, richer, more gratifying existence, free from the pain that drinking brings.