Knowing what to expect during alcohol withdrawal won't make it easier to bear, but can prepare you and let you make arrangments for your care. Alcohol withdrawal can be intense, disorienting and painful. Once the body has become accustomed to a high level of alcohol, it begins to depend on it and this dependency is what we know as alcoholism.
Alcoholism may be worse among certain ethnic groups due to genetic predisposition, and withdrawal symptoms can also vary in severity. Native Americans have a high tolerance to alcohol, making them more prone to alcohol dependency. Korean, Chinese and Japanese individuals lack an enzyme that helps break down alcohol, so they become physically ill after only ingesting a small amount - making them less prone to become dependent on alcohol.
When the alcohol intake stops abruptly, the first symptom of withdrawal may present as a very bad hangover, accompanied by the shakes or in some cases irregular heart activity. The main problem, however, is the almost overwhelming urge to drink, which must be resisted at all costs. Unfortunately, many alcoholics cannot help giving into to the need to resume drinking.
If alcohol is denied, in severe cases the first stage will give way to the second, commonly known as the DT's. Delirium Tremens usually consist of visual hallucinations, which can possibly be complicated by convulsions or seizures; once they start it is almost impossible to stop them. Some medication at this point may help, but care must be taken while the body is in such a fragile state.
Treatment centers often will substitute a dose of valium for the alcohol the body is accustomed to, and lower the dose over a course of days or weeks to wean the patient from their dependence without such violent side effects. This should only be done under strict supervision in an inpatient clinic or rehab center.
Depression is a major concern during alcohol withdrawal, as the patient's mental and emotional state can be very fragile. Having to deal with unpleasant realities is harder once the comforting haze provided by the alcohol is gone, and the physical weakness and discomfort will make these feelings worse. Support from friends and family members can make all the difference during this time, and an effort should be made to help the patient focus on the future, and how good it will be not to be under the yoke of alcohol dependency.
If the patient uses other forms of addictive substances, and is trying to quit all of them at once, there will be additional strain, and a doctor's guidance is recommended. Many people choose to check into a treatment program as the structure and accountability are often more successful than trying to go cold turkey, and this option normally has a higher rate of success.
Willingness to accept help and a determination to quit are the key factors in any treatment plan, and alcoholic withdrawal will be much easier if recovery is monitored and medication available. If you have a friend or family member who is struggling with alcohol dependency, the best thing you can do for them is urge them to seek help, and offer your support during the time of withdrawal.