Alcohol Detox Symptoms

By:    Published: January 8, 2012

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Alcohol detox, also known as alcohol detoxification or withdrawal, is the process of eliminating alcohol from one’s body and daily life. While most consider going on an alcohol detox after a heavy night of drinking, real alcohol detox can lead to severe symptoms for those suffering from alcoholism or alcohol dependency.

Definition

Alcohol detox symptoms are what people, who regularly drink alcohol, experience when they stop drinking, completely. It will vary based on the severity of the alcohol use. It’s important to remember that alcohol is a very powerful depressant drug. It’s thought that a confluence of factors is responsible for causing the varying effects of alcohol detox, including genetics, environmental factors and individual psychological factors.

Alcohol use over a long period of time damages nearly every organ system in the body. The most immediate cause for concern is damage to the liver and brain. Kidney failure, stroke, sexual dysfunction, as well as the possibility of accidents and violence are also of serious concern. Long term affects of alcohol include cancer of the liver and pancreas as well as mental health disorders.

Causes

Alcohol depresses the Central Nervous System (CNS), and continued use of alcohol decreases a person’s sensitivity to the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), while inhibiting the neuroreceptor NMDA. Because the body wants to maintain homeostasis, the body will adjust the production and release of neurotransmitters and neuroreceptors to compensate for the effects of the alcohol.

Cessation of the supply of alcohol to the body causes overactivity in the CNS and hyperexcitability in the brain, which causes the symptoms associated with alcohol detox. The severity of these reactions will vary based upon the amount of consumption and how prolonged the use. In severe cases the overactivity in the central nervous system can lead to death. In these severe cases people are usually hospitalized and medication is used to mitigate the symptoms.

Symptoms

Symptoms of withdrawal can vary. Those with more severe addictions to alcohol will have more severe symptoms. There is a diagnostic chart that is used by doctors to determine the severity of withdrawal, called the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for alcohol (CIWA-Ar).

Points

Anxiety

Agitation

Tremor

Headache

Orientation

0

None

None

None

None

Oriented

1

N/A

Somewhat

None visible but felt at fingertips

Very mild

Can’t do serial additions

2

N/A

N/A

N/A

Mild

Disoriented by less than 2 days

3

N/A

N/A

N/A

Moderate

Disoriented by more than 2 days

4

Guarded

Restless

Moderate with hands extended

Moderately severe

Disoriented for person and/or place

5

N/A

N/A

N/A

Severe

N/A

6

N/A

N/A

N/A

Very severe

N/A

7

Panic

Pacing/

Thrashing

Severe

Extremely severe

N/A

 

Points

Nausea/

Vomiting

Sweats

Auditory

Hallucinations

Visual

Tactile Disturbance

0

None

None

None

None

None

1

N/A

Moist Palms

Very mild

Very mild photosensitivity

Very mild paresthesias*

2

N/A

N/A

Mild

Mild photosensitivity

Mild paresthesias

3

N/A

N/A

Moderate

Moderate photosensitivity

Moderate paresthesias

4

Intermittent with  dry heaves

Beads

Moderately severe

Moderately severe visual hallucinations

Moderately severe hallucinations

5

N/A

N/A

Severe

Severe

Severe

6

N/A

N/A

Very severe

Very severe

Very severe

7

Constant

Drenching

Constant

Continuous

Continuous

*this is a burning, tingling or prickling feeling when touched. A person's score should be combined totals from both charts.

  • A score of less than 8 points signifies minimal withdrawal
  • A score of 8 to 15 signifies mild withdrawal
  • A score of 16 to 20 signifies moderate withdrawal
  • anything more than 20 is considered severe

Treatment

Based on how someone scores on the chart above, treatment can then be determined. For those with mild alcohol detox withdrawal, the person may just need to get extra rest until the symptoms pass. Typically, medical intervention is only sought when alcohol withdrawal levels range from moderate to severe.

Alcohol detox patients in a hospital setting will be evaluated every hour and symptomatic treatment is given until the patient scores 8 points or less on the assessment. Some of the medications used to treat the alcohol detox symptoms include:

  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)

The dosages of these medications will vary from person to person. In addition, if a person is combative or symptoms are severe, the person may need to be restrained until the medications can take effect.

Once the person’s symptoms have significantly reduced in severity, there are some other longer term treatment options that he or she should carry on at home. These things are designed to help repair the damage that the alcohol may have caused to the body as well as reduce any lingering craving for alcohol that remains.

  • Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and lean protein. Avoid refined sugar or fat as these overwork the pancreas and liver, just as the alcohol did.
  • Drink eight ounces of water ever two waking hours. This will help rehydrate the body (alcohol causes dehydration) as well as flush toxins from the body.
  • Avoid caffeine. Instead, opt for herbal tea.
  • Take a high potency multivitamin. This will help heal all the systems of the body.
  • Seek counseling. Professional counseling and support groups are highly recommended.

There are many supplements that have been shown to aid in long term alcohol detox.

  • Milk thistle: supports liver detoxification and reduce elevated liver enzymes
  • B-Complex: aids in detox as well as supports mood and boosts energy.
  • Chromium: reduces cravings for sugar, and possibly alcohol.
  • L-Glutamine: helps support mood and energy levels.
  • 5-HTTP: this helps to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression that are often seen during alcohol detox. This also promotes restful sleep.

Prognosis

The prognosis of someone going through alcohol detox varies greatly. Much will depend upon the long-term treatment received, such as counseling and additional support. Relapse is a very real possibility and does happen often, but with support this can be mitigated.

Those who suffer from alcohol addiction typically try a number of times to stop but suffer multiple failures. Often alcohol detox is an ongoing battle that can take years, but with treatment, it’s a battle that can be won.

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