As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, people struggling with an alcohol addiction are at an increased risk for serious health problems, including withdrawal. At a time when the nation’s healthcare system is strained, stay-at-home orders are in place, and social distancing is needed, some people suffering from an alcohol use disorder may not be able to get the alcohol they need to satisfy their addiction. Others may decide that it is a good time to quit their alcohol use “cold turkey.” Either way, these individuals are in danger of alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) during the current pandemic.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?
According to Healthline, the name for the symptoms that a heavy drinker experiences when they suddenly reduce their alcohol intake or stop drinking completely is alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Depending on the severity of the addiction, AWS symptoms range from mild to physically dangerous and potentially fatal. They occur whether the person stops their alcohol use voluntarily or involuntarily. Going through withdrawal is considered high-risk for women who are pregnant or for anyone with pre-existing medical conditions.
Why Does It Happen?
An article in Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School provides a simple explanation of how the brain is affected by alcohol. It explains that alcohol is a depressant that affects the central nervous system. It interacts with the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors in the brain causing a sedating effect. When a person drinks alcohol heavily over a long period of time, their brain is exposed to the alcohol’s depressant effect almost continually. When this occurs, the brain compensates for the alcohol’s effect by adjusting its own chemistry. It produces chemicals such as norepinephrine and serotonin which are naturally stimulating in larger amounts than normal. When the amount of alcohol is suddenly stopped or greatly decreased, the brain becomes overstimulated and has difficulty readjusting back to its normal chemistry.
The Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
Once your brain has adjusted to excessive alcohol consumption, it needs time to adjust back to its normal state. Not everyone experiences all symptoms, and they appear in a predictable pattern.
Mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome include anxiety, agitation, headache, hand tremors, and palpitations. The person may have a loss of appetite, feel nauseous, and/or vomit. Abdominal pain is felt and gastrointestinal disturbances occur. Additional symptoms at this stage include:
- Rapid breathing
- Increase in blood pressure
- Vivid dreams or nightmares
Moderate symptoms include an increase of mild symptoms, elevated body temperature, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), and rapid shallow breathing. The person may seem confused and/or disoriented. Additional symptoms include:
- Dilated pupils
- Hand and body tremors
The most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome are delirium tremens, commonly known as the DT’s. These symptoms include extreme agitation, extreme confusion, angry or nervous behavior, paranoid ideas, irrational beliefs, disorientation, and impaired attention. The person may experience soaking sweats. The condition causes dangerously high blood pressure and an extremely elevated heart rate. Dangerous changes occur to the circulatory and respiratory systems. The amount of blood flow to the brain can be temporarily reduced.
The body is unable to regulate body temperature and a fever develops. Tactile, auditory, and/or visual hallucinations occur. During a tactile hallucination, the person may have a feeling of burning, numbness, or itching that is not actually occurring. They have the perception of movement inside or on their body. When a visual hallucination occurs, the person sees images that do not exist. It is common during alcohol withdrawal for the person to see a lot of similar, small, moving objects. When a person experiences an auditory hallucination, they hear sounds that do not exist.
Other symptoms of delirium tremens include:
- Extreme dehydration
- Rapid mood changes
- Sleep disturbances
- Stupor or loss of consciousness
- Grand mal convulsions, delirium, and seizures including status epilepticus, a type of seizure that can result in death.
You Are Not Alone
If you or someone you love has an addiction to alcohol or drugs, you are not alone. There is help available, even in the midst of the current pandemic. Call and speak to a professional at English Mountain Recovery located in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. You will have your questions answered and learn how to start your journey to a clean and sober life.
About the Author:
Terry Hurley is a retired educational professional and freelance writer with more than fifty years of experience. A former reading specialist and learning center director, Terry loved her years working with children in the educational field. She has written extensively for print and online publications specializing in education and health issues. For the last six years, her writing focus has been on addiction and mental health issues.