Alcohol dependence; Alcohol abuse
When a person with alcoholism stops drinking, withdrawal symptoms begin within 6 - 48 hours and peak about 24 - 35 hours after the last drink. During this period, the inhibition of brain activity caused by alcohol is abruptly reversed. Stress hormones are overproduced, and the central nervous system becomes overexcited. Common symptoms include:
Additional symptoms may include:
It is not clear if older people with alcoholism are at higher risk for more severe symptoms than younger patients. However, several studies have indicated that they may suffer more complications during withdrawal, including delirium, falls, and a decreased ability to perform normal activities.
Upon entering a hospital due to alcohol withdrawal, patients should be given a physical examination for any injuries or medical conditions. They should be treated, if possible, for any potentially serious problems, such as high blood pressure, anemia, liver damage, or irregular heartbeat.
The immediate goal of treatment is to calm the patient as quickly as possible. Patients should be observed for at least 2 hours to determine the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Doctors may use assessment tests, such as the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment (CIWA) scale, to help determine treatment and whether the symptoms will progress in severity.
About 95% of people have mild-to-moderate withdrawal symptoms, including agitation, trembling, disturbed sleep, and lack of appetite. In 15 - 20% of people with moderate symptoms, brief seizures and hallucinations may occur, but they do not progress to full-blown delirium tremens. Such patients often can be treated as outpatients. After being examined and observed, the patient is usually sent home with a 4-day supply of anti-anxiety medication, scheduled for follow-up and rehabilitation, and advised to return to the emergency room if withdrawal symptoms increase in severity. If possible, a family member or friend should support the patient through the next few days of withdrawal.
Benzodiazepines. Anti-anxiety drugs known as benzodiazepines inhibit nerve-cell excitability in the brain and are considered to be the treatment of choice. They relieve withdrawal symptoms, help prevent progression to delirium tremens, and reduce the risk for seizures. Long-acting drugs, such as chlordiazepoxide (Libritabs, Librium), oxazepam (Serax), and halazepam (Paxipam) are preferred. They pose less risk for abuse than the shorter-acting drugs, which include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), and lorazepam (Ativan).
Assessing symptoms frequently and administering benzodiazepine doses as needed (instead of giving to a fixed dose at regular intervals) may reduce the incidence of withdrawal symptoms and other adverse events, including delirium, seizures, and transfer to the intensive care unit.
Some doctors question the use of any anti-anxiety medication for mild withdrawal symptoms, since these drugs are subject to abuse. Others believe that repeated withdrawal episodes, even mild forms, that are inadequately treated may result in increasingly severe and frequent seizures with possible brain damage. In any case, benzodiazepines are usually not prescribed for more than 2 weeks or administered for more than 3 nights per week. Problems with benzodiazepines include:
Antiseizure Medications. Antiseizure drugs, such as carbamazepine (Tegretol) or divalproex sodium (Depakote), may be useful for reducing the requirements of a benzodiazepine. When used by themselves, however, they do not appear to reduce seizures or delirium associated with withdrawal.
Other Supportive Drugs. Beta blockers, such as propranolol (Inderal) and atenolol (Tenormin), are sometimes used in combination with benzodiazepines. They slow heart rate and reduce tremors. They may also reduce cravings.
Treating Delirium Tremens. People with symptoms of delirium tremens must be treated immediately. Untreated delirium tremens has a fatality rate that can be as high as 20%. Treatment usually involves intravenous anti-anxiety medications. It is extremely important that fluids be administered. Restraints may be necessary to prevent injury to the patient or to others.
Treating Seizures. Seizures are usually self-limited and treated with a benzodiazepine. Intravenous phenytoin (Dilantin) along with a benzodiazepine may be used in patients who have a history of seizures, who have epilepsy, or in those with ongoing seizures. Because phenytoin may lower blood pressure, the patient's heart should be monitored during treatment. Chlormethiazole, a derivative of vitamin B1, is used in Europe for reducing agitation and seizures.
Psychosis. For hallucinations or extremely aggressive behavior, antipsychotic drugs, particularly haloperidol (Haldol), may be administered. Korsakoff's psychosis (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome) is caused by severe vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiencies, which cannot be replaced orally. Rapid and immediate injection of the B vitamin thiamin is necessary.
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