Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic disease that changes the brain’s structure and functioning. Someone struggling with alcohol addiction likely will develop a physical dependence on the intoxicant since alcohol binds to brain receptors to manage some neurotransmitters. Without drinking regularly, the person may feel sick, depressed, exhausted, anxious, restless, or experience other withdrawal symptoms that lead them to believe they need to drink to feel normal.
One sign that someone struggles with an addiction to alcohol, and does not just drink for recreational reasons, is they try to quit repeatedly, or they often think or talk about quitting but can’t. If they try to quit without support from addiction specialists, friends, and family, the person is much more likely to relapse back into alcohol abuse because withdrawal symptoms can be very uncomfortable. In some instances, alcohol withdrawal can be deadly.
Some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are more common than others. They include:
Other symptoms, such as the ones listed below, are uncomfortable. Those are:
These symptoms begin a few hours after the final drink and usually peak within one to three days. They are generally gone within a week.
The more intense symptoms, including physical symptoms, may lead to alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), which can prolong the withdrawal experience for another week or two. At their most severe, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can become a condition called delirium tremens (DTs), which includes serious symptoms such as:
DTs typically only sets in among people who drink large amounts of alcohol, and who have tried repeatedly to quit drinking and failed. High levels of daily alcohol consumption can lead to DTs.
If someone consumes this amount of alcohol every day for several months, they are at risk of developing DTs. If the person has abused alcohol for more than 10 years, they also are at risk of DTs.
If you are concerned about someone’s alcohol consumption and behaviors around drinking, you should absolutely say something. Alcohol addiction is likely to get worse, not better, without professional treatment. Showing that you are concerned and want to support your loved one can help them find the strength to get help.
It is also important to know that they should not detox at home even if you are there to support them. Because withdrawing from any drug, including alcohol, can be uncomfortable, trying to detox without help from addiction specialists can lead to relapse, or a return to drinking. This may cause the person to drink more alcohol than before, and that can increase AUD symptoms.
When you help a loved one understand the need for alcohol treatment, including the need to professionally manage withdrawal symptoms, encourage them to get supervision through an appropriate professional detox program. This may require going to a physician for a diagnosis, a therapist for an assessment, or finding a detox program and asking for help.
You may consider staging an intervention. It is important to create an intervention that clearly expresses concern for your loved one, sets clear boundaries, and supports their efforts to get help. An intervention is a way for friends and family to express concern, allow health care professionals to discuss the signs of addiction and its harms, and present the consequences of the person’s actions if they do not seek and follow through with treatment.
Follow these steps to create a successful intervention.
An assessment from a physician or clinician can help you determine if your loved one struggles with AUD. A doctor or therapist also can refer you to detox programs that will suit your needs well.
If you need further help finding detox treatment programs that are based in medical research, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has an online treatment finder and hotline to help you find local options. In addition, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has a treatment locator online that is focused on care for alcohol abuse and addiction.
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Alcohol Use Disorder. (July 11, 2018). Mayo Clinic. from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243
Alcohol Withdrawal. (January 14, 2017). Medline Plus. from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000764.htm
Delirium Tremens. (January 14, 2017). Medline Plus. from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000766.htm
Staging an Intervention for an Alcoholic. (June 15, 2016). Healthline. from https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol-addiction-intervention#process