Alcohol abuse destroys lives. In fact, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) cites alcohol as the third most preventable cause of death in the United States. More than 88,000 people a year die from alcohol-related causes, making it one of our country’s most significant public health issues. According to WebMD, “alcohol plays a role in at least half of all serious trauma injuries and deaths from burns, drownings, and homicides. It’s also involved in four out of 10 fatal falls and traffic crashes, as well as suicides.”
The adverse physical and mental health impacts of alcohol abuse are significant. The physical effects of large quantities of or long-term abuse of alcohol contribute to life-threatening conditions like stroke, heart disease, liver disease, and diabetes. Alcohol abuse can trigger anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and actions. Its effects are many, and often deadly.
What is alcohol use disorder?
What experts use to call alcohol abuse, alcoholism, or alcohol dependency they now refer to as alcohol use disorder (AUD). A person often receives an AUD diagnosis when they cannot stop using alcohol even in the face of negative consequences, including serious problems at home, work, and school, as well as legal and financial issues. The person abusing alcohol often refuses to recognize there is a problem, or, if they do recognize the issue, they feel incapable of stopping the behavior.
Physicians typically use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), issued by the American Psychiatric Association, to diagnose alcohol use disorder and its severity. Whereas the previous Diagnostic Manual (DSM-IV) looked at alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency separately, DSM-5 includes them both under alcohol use disorder.
The DSM-5 lists 11 symptoms relative to alcohol use behavior, each of which can help physicians determine if there is an alcohol use disorder. The presence of at least 2 symptoms indicates an AUD, while the number of symptoms present indicates the severity of the disorder. A mild AUD displays 2-3 symptoms; a moderate AUD 4-5 symptoms; and a severe AUD displays 6 or more symptoms.
According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 15.1 million American adults ages 18 and older had an alcohol use disorder, including 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women.
Side effects of alcohol withdrawal
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, slowing motor function, understanding, reasoning and speech. It also affects the pleasure and reward center of the brain, triggering the release of dopamine, a “feel good” chemical. While the body naturally releases dopamine in reaction to a positive event, alcohol triggers the body to release an abnormal amount. These high levels of dopamine lead to intense pleasure, reinforcing the behavior and the urge to repeat the behavior. As the body adjusts to having a steady influx of alcohol, it creates a permanent state of overstimulation in the brain. When alcohol use stops, the brain remains in a high state of stimulation, triggering withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include:
- Tremors, shakes
- Agitation, irritability
- Difficulty concentrating
One of the most severe forms of alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens (DTs), which can lead to impairment of the circulatory and respiratory systems. Blood pressure and heart rate can undergo dangerous changes, increasing the risk of life-threatening consequences. Medical monitoring is necessary for anyone experiencing DTs.
Seek professional help for safe alcohol withdrawal and long-term recovery
Many people know they have a problem with alcohol but do not stop drinking because they are afraid of withdrawal side effects. Fortunately, there are ways to ease the discomfort of withdrawal. Before anyone stops drinking, it is best to consult with a physician or addiction specialist. They can offer valuable guidance and resources to help ease withdrawal and to succeed long-term. Professional medical oversight is especially important if you have used alcohol for a long time, drink large amounts of alcohol, also use legal or illegal drugs or have other medical conditions. According to the NIAAA, “the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal typically appear between 6 and 48 hours after heavy alcohol consumption decreases…initial symptoms of AW intensify and then diminish over 24 to 48 hours.”
The road to long-term sobriety begins with detoxification, which means clearing the alcohol from your system. Anyone suffering from moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms should detox at a hospital or addiction treatment facility for the safest and most comfortable recovery. There, professionals will monitor vital signs like blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature to ensure they are within safe levels. They may administer fluids and medications to ease symptoms and will watch for dangerous signs like hallucinations or seizures.
Support from loved ones during alcohol recovery
Alcohol recovery is a lifelong process, and a strong support system can make all the difference. Starting with detox, there are steps loved ones can take to help ease the process.
Loved ones can help a person going through the detox process in many different ways, including:
- Seek and follow medical direction
- Remove alcohol from the house
- Hide the car keys or keep them with you
- Maintain a calm, supportive manner
- Attend Al-Anon or other support group
- Encourage loved one to attend AA or other support group
As someone going through detox and recovery, what can I do to help myself?
- Write down a detailed account of why you’re giving up alcohol, the negative consequences you’re no longer willing to experience, and your goals for the future
- Avoid people, places, and events that have triggered drinking in the past
- Engage in old or new hobbies and activities
- Attend AA or other support group
- Seek professional counseling
Life without alcohol can give you back so much – your relationships, your health, financial security and self-respect. Attending AA meetings and listening to the stories from other recovering alcoholics about how much better their lives are without alcohol can provide great support. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may be uncomfortable for a short time, but the trade-off is a far richer, happier and longer life.
Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Substance Abuse, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987. If you need help or know someone who does, please contact our admissions department at 813-882-3003, 800-397-3006 or firstname.lastname@example.org.