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Understanding and Planning for the Effects of Alcohol Detox
Alcohol abuse and addiction can be challenging to address–and in a number of different ways. Many people find that merely admitting the existence of a problem can be difficult. Others discover that social norms and the ubiquity of alcohol consumption stand in the way of disrupting their own patterns of abuse.
For some, however, the physical symptoms that arise when alcohol consumption is lessened or ceased end up being most troubling of all. Studies show that around half of all those who attempt to quit using alcohol experience symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal. In the severest of cases, death can even result.
Because of this, many rehabilitation programs begin with an initial period of “detoxification” that is designed to ease participants through this often-difficult phase of recovery. Understanding the effects of alcohol detox beforehand can make the entire process much easier to come to terms with and more likely to result in success. Even when detox turns out to be difficult, working through it in a supportive environment under the supervision of qualified professionals will help minimise the severity of the problems that might arise.
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The Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Basic Brain Chemistry and Function
Of the many symptoms associated with withdrawal from alcohol, most are thought to be related to how heavy usage affects two particular kinds of neurotransmitter receptors in the brain:
- GABA receptors are responsible for inhibiting neuronal activity in the brain, and studies suggest that alcohol mimics the effect of the neurotransmitter that normally triggers them. When alcohol is regularly abused, the receptors become less sensitive, both to alcohol and the natural neurotransmitter to which they normally respond.
- NMDA glutamate receptors likewise become less sensitive with abuse of alcohol. The way alcohol activates these receptors itself can contribute, in the short term, to increased activity in parts of the brain that produce feelings of pleasure and well-being. Once dependence has been established and upon cessation thereafter, however, the opposite can result because of the lingering desensitisation of the receptors.
Taken together, these two mechanisms can lead to any of a wide range of symptoms until normal receptor functioning is restored. While withdrawal from alcohol can be extremely difficult, making it through the process means the affected receptors will have regained a healthier, more appropriate sensitivity to the neurotransmitters to which they are meant to respond. What matters the most, then, is working through withdrawal in an environment that will encourage success and include the kind of support needed to ensure that no lasting harm results. alcohol withdrawal treatment at home is therefore not the best way to go about it.
The Most Common Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Because no two people or histories of abuse are the same, the effects of alcohol detox will vary from one person to the next. Among the more common and less-severe effects of withdrawal from alcohol are:
- Shakiness: Many who abuse alcohol experience shakiness of the limbs even without specifically trying to quit drinking. While going without a drink for a short time might produce some minor tremors, those that accompany a complete, prolonged cessation of alcohol use can be much more severe.
- Tachycardia, or Increased Resting Heart Rate: A heightened heart rate is also common among those who quit drinking after a pattern of abuse. In some cases, the heart rate will rise high enough during the detox process that medication meant to lower it will be prescribed.
- Fever and Sweating: The body’s ability to regulate its temperature can suffer during even relatively mild cases of withdrawal from alcohol. Many patients will experience a slight fever and light sweating of a kind that could otherwise be taken for symptoms of a simple cold. In some cases, body temperature can rise high enough that medical intervention could be required.
- Nausea, Insomnia, Anxiety, and General Discomfort: Others of the most common effects of alcohol detox include occasional or prolonged feelings of nausea, an inability to sleep, and a general feeling of being anxious, uncomfortable, or ill at ease. As with the other most common symptoms, the strength and duration of these varies widely, as well.
More Severe Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Withdrawal
In general, the severest and most dangerous symptoms tend to arise in those with long-term histories of abuse. In practice, though, even a month of especially heavy drinking can alter brain functioning enough that these could become an issue.
Although the most common symptoms of alcohol detox can be difficult to endure in their own right, those of a more severe kind can specifically endanger the life of a person experiencing them. It is therefore important that anyone whose history of alcohol abuse is such that these symptoms might arise attempt detox only in a setting where appropriate medical attention will be available. These most severe possible effects of alcohol detox include:
- Seizures: Most commonly occurring around two days into the detox process, withdrawal-related seizures are typically confined to a relatively brief period. Among patients with histories of heavy abuse, a single tonic-clonic seizure or a cluster of them is often to be expected.
- Delirium Tremens: A complex of symptoms that can sometimes be fatal, delirium tremens, or “DTs,” is the most severe of all possible effects of detox. Patients experiencing DTs will normally become delirious while also grappling with other symptoms, including especially severe versions of a number of those most common to alcohol withdrawal.
- Hallucinations or Acute Confusion: In some cases, hallucinations, severe confusion, or other disturbed states of mind may arise without the intensified symptoms of other kinds typical of delirium tremens. These symptoms can still be extremely dangerous in their own right, however.
Plan for Supervised, Supportive Detox
Even given the many other challenges that must be addressed in order to recover from alcohol abuse, the withdrawal process should never be neglected. From mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms like shakiness and nausea that are experienced by many, to full-blown delirium tremens, seizures, or hallucinations, alcohol detox is a serious matter. Alcohol detox at home is not recommended because it could be dangerous due to the withdrawal symptoms.
What typically matters the most with regard to successful detox is having all the assistance and care that might be needed. No person should ever feel forced to confront withdrawal from alcohol alone, and seeking help and support is always the best policy. Whether in order to make it much less likely that minor symptoms will sap a person’s resolve or to address potentially fatal threats like delirium tremens, making appropriate plans for detox will always be worthwhile.
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