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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(6):1500

What is alcohol withdrawal syndrome?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a set of symptoms people have when they suddenly stop drinking after using alcohol for a long time. Some people have mild shakiness and sweats. Some people hear and see things that do not exist. The most serious form of withdrawal is called delirium tremens, or “DTs.” DTs can be life-threatening if not treated by a doctor.

Withdrawal symptoms rarely occur in people who drink only once in a while. Symptoms usually occur in people who have been drinking heavily for weeks or months and then suddenly stop drinking. Symptoms start within several hours to a few days after the last drink.

Do people in withdrawal need to see a doctor?

Yes. Your doctor needs to know you are going through withdrawal so he or she can make sure it does not lead to more serious health problems. If you go through withdrawal a number of times, your symptoms may get worse each time. So even if your withdrawal symptoms do not seem bad this time, it is important to tell your doctor. This is especially true for people who had a bad withdrawal before and people who have other health problems, such as infections, heart disease, lung disease, or a history of seizures.

People who quit using other drugs (such as tobacco, injected drugs, or cocaine) at the same time they stop drinking alcohol might have severe withdrawal problems. They should see a doctor when they are planning to quit.

What can a doctor do to help people in withdrawal?

A doctor can keep track of withdrawal symptoms so that more serious health problems do not develop. He or she also can give emotional support.

Medicines can control the shakiness, anxiety, and confusion that come with alcohol withdrawal. Only a doctor can prescribe these medicines. If you take the medicines at an early stage of the withdrawal, they may keep your symptoms from getting worse. Most people in withdrawal do not need to be in a hospital.

What can family and friends do to help people going through withdrawal?

It is important for people going through withdrawal to have a quiet, safe place to stay until the withdrawal is over. The urge to drink again during withdrawal can be very strong. Some people may put themselves into dangerous situations. After withdrawal symptoms go away, it is important for the person to join a treatment or sobriety program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Support from family and friends can help a person do well in one of these programs.

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