When someone who has an addiction to alcohol quits using it, a condition known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome occurs. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a collection of symptoms that can make the detox process very difficult and painful.
Initially, drinking alcohol increases the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter that's responsible for producing feelings of calm and relaxation. Over time, however, alcohol suppresses the activity of GABA, and more and more alcohol is needed in order to feel the desired effects. At the same time, alcohol suppresses the function of glutamate, the neurotransmitter responsible for producing feelings of excitement, which compensates by operating a higher level than is normal. These changes in brain function indicate that an addiction has set in, and when alcohol is withheld from the body, the suppressed neurotransmitters rebound and cause withdrawal symptoms.
While withdrawal symptoms appear in a predictable pattern, not everyone who is addicted to alcohol will experience all of the possible symptoms when they stop drinking. These symptoms can range in intensity from mild to severe, depending on the severity and length of the addiction and how much alcohol is in the body at the time someone stops drinking.
Six to 12 hours after the last drink, minor, but uncomfortable symptoms typically begin to appear. These include shakiness, mild anxiety, profuse sweating, vomiting, and headache.
12 to 24 hours after the last drink, tactile, visual, or auditory hallucinations may occur. Patients typically know that these aren't real, and they usually end within 48 hours of onset.
48 to 72 hours after the last drink, a condition known as delirium tremens, or DTs, may occur. DTs is very dangerous and potentially fatal, and it usually strikes those who have liver problems, a history of seizures during alcohol withdrawal, or who are of an advancing age. Symptoms of DTs include dangerous increases in blood pressure and heart rate, seizures, fever, severe tremors, and visual hallucinations that appear to be very real. DTs usually peak around 5 days.
To break the physical addiction to alcohol safely and effectively, medical detox is essential. This process is medically supervised, and medications are provided as they're needed to prevent or treat dangerous or fatal conditions associated with DTs and alleviate cravings and other uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal.
Some of the medications commonly used during medical detox include Neurotonin to help restore normal brain function and prevent or treat seizures, Chantix to reduce the intensity of alcohol cravings, and Paxil to alleviate the depressive symptoms of withdrawal and help patients sleep.
Those who try to detox without medical supervision and intervention may find that the withdrawal symptoms are too intense, and they will turn back to alcohol very early in the process just to ease the discomfort. Medical detox is safe and largely effective, and it's only available through qualified alcohol treatment programs.
Inpatient treatment for alcohol addiction is always the best choice for rehab. Inpatient programs involve staying at a residential facility, away from the stress and triggers that can lead to a lapse very quickly. Inpatient treatment offers a warm and collaborative environment where patients can focus fully on recovery and draw support from other patients in various stages of recovery. Inpatient treatment is particularly essential for people who have a co-occurring mental illness or a long-term addiction to alcohol.
Outpatient treatment can also be successful for some people. Outpatient treatment enables patients to live at home, where they can continue to attend school or maintain employment and meet their other obligations. Outpatient treatment provides more privacy than inpatient treatment since an extended absence isn't required. In order for outpatient treatment to be successful, however, patients need to be personally committed and intrinsically motivated to recover, and there should be a solid support system in place at home.