What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS)?
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is the name for the
symptoms that occur when a heavy drinker suddenly stops or significantly
reduces their alcohol intake. With AWS, you may experience a combination of physical
and emotional symptoms, from mild anxiety and fatigue to nausea. Some symptoms
of AWS are as severe as hallucinations and seizures. At its most extreme, AWS
can be life-threatening.
What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?
The signs and symptoms of AWS may appear anywhere from six
hours to a few days after your last drink. These usually include at least two
of the following:
- an increased
The symptoms may worsen over two to three days and persist
for weeks. They may be more noticeable when you wake up with less alcohol in
The most severe type of withdrawal syndrome is known as
delirium tremens (DT). Its signs and symptoms include:
- a fever
hallucinations, such as having a sense of itching, burning, or numbness
that isn’t actually occurring
hallucinations, or hearing sounds that don’t exist
hallucinations, or seeing images that don’t exist
If you have severe AWS symptoms, it’s a medical emergency.
Call for help or go to the emergency room. A high fever, hallucinations, and
heart disturbances are all reasons to seek immediate help.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?
Excessive drinking excites the nervous system. If you drink
daily, your body becomes dependent on alcohol over time. When this happens,
your central nervous system can no longer adapt easily to the lack of alcohol.
If you suddenly stop drinking or significantly reduce the amount of alcohol you
drink, it can cause AWS.
Who Is at Risk for Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?
People who are addicted to alcohol or who drink heavily on a
regular basis and cannot gradually cut down, are at high risk for AWS. AWS is
more common in adults, but children and teenagers who drink excessively may
also experience the symptoms. You’re also at risk for AWS if you’ve previously
had withdrawal symptoms or needed medical detox for a drinking problem.
How Is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome Diagnosed?
Your doctor will review your medical history, ask about your
symptoms, and conduct a physical exam. Some signs your doctor will look for
irregular heart rate
- a fever
Your doctor may also perform a toxicology screen. This tests
how much alcohol is in your body.
Institute Withdrawal Assessment of Alcohol (CIWA-Ar) is a series of
questions used to measure AWS. Your doctor may use this test to diagnose AWS.
It can also be used to determine the severity of your symptoms.
How Is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome Treated?
Treatment for AWS depends on how severe your symptoms are.
Some people can be treated at home, but others may need supervised care in a
hospital setting to avoid potentially dangerous complications.
The first goal of treatment is to keep you comfortable by
managing your symptoms. Alcohol counseling is another important treatment goal.
Your doctor will want you to stop drinking as quickly and safely as possible.
Mild symptoms of AWS can often be treated at home. A
relative or friend must stay with you to monitor your condition. Their job is
to make sure you go to counseling and visit the doctor regularly for routine
blood tests. You may also need tests for alcohol-related medical problems.
If your home environment isn’t helpful for staying sober,
talk to your doctor. Your doctor may be able to connect you with shelter
programs for recovering alcoholics.
If your symptoms are more severe, you may need to stay in
the hospital. This is so your doctor can monitor your condition and manage any
complications. You may need to get fluids through your veins to prevent
dehydration and medications to help ease your symptoms.
Symptoms of AWS are often treated with sedatives called
“benzodiazepines.” Once withdrawal is complete, additional medications and
supplements may be needed to address complications and nutritional deficiencies
that occur as a result of chronic alcohol use.
Outlook for Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
Most people with AWS fully recover. If you stop drinking,
get treatment, and you’re otherwise healthy, the outlook is usually good.
However, sleep disturbances, irritability, and fatigue may continue for months.
If AWS has advanced to delirium tremens, it can be fatal. If
you begin experiencing severe symptoms of AWS, it’s important to seek immediate
medical attention. The sooner you begin treatment, the better your chances are
of avoiding life-threatening complications.
Preventing Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
The best way to prevent AWS is to avoid regular heavy
drinking. If you’re already dependent on alcohol, seek counseling and medical
care. The goal is to safely and gradually decrease your dependence on alcohol
so that you can resume a healthy life.