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‘Cold turkey’ alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening

The alcohol ban, according to a mental health expert, can be detrimental for alcoholics. Going cold turkey can have serious physical and psychological consequences. 

According to Akeso — a group of private in-patient mental health facilities part of the Netcare Group — severe alcohol withdrawal could last days, weeks and even months. 

With alcohol sales having been banned since the beginning of the lockdown, and with the personal stock of alcohol having run out, South Africans who are highly addicted may be experiencing severe alcohol withdrawal, which may not only be torturous for them but may also be potentially life-threatening in some cases.

ALCOHOL WITHDRAWAL CAN BE LIFE-THREATENING

Dr Duncan Laurenson, a general medical practitioner and substance use disorder specialist, said that while the alcohol ban has a few positive outcomes, it also has a darker side. 

“Sudden alcohol withdrawal in a heavily addicted person may cause a range of symptoms that can vary from being physically and psychologically uncomfortable to life-threatening. Mild symptoms include mood swings, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, and insomnia, which in some individuals may last for weeks and even months,” said Laurenson. 

“Of even greater concern is that severe withdrawal in some at-risk people with a history of continuous heavy drinking, particularly the elderly, can result in high fevers, confusion [delirium], hallucinations, tremors and coma (delirium tremens), as well as seizures, heart attack or stroke if they are compelled to suddenly stop consuming alcohol,” said Laurenson. 

HEAVY DRINKERS MUST BE CLOSELY MONITORED 

Laurenson said that as a society, we should be mindful of, and closely monitor, those who have a history of heavy drinking and who may no longer have access to alcohol. 

He explains that persons who regularly use alcohol can become physically and mentally dependent on them to the extent that when they are no longer able to have them, they experience a surge of adrenaline and cravings. This, in turn, creates a distressing series of withdrawal symptoms known as “withdrawal syndrome”. 

The severity of the withdrawal can range from mild and uncomfortable to chronic and life-threatening, depending on the person’s age, physical and psychological characteristics, duration of use and the type of drug.

Laurenson says that if you witness a person who has a history of heavy drinking start to shudder and shake, become delirious and/or suffer a seizure, they may have a serious alcohol withdrawal problem that requires urgent treatment at a hospital or mental health facility.

However, anyone who is concerned that they may have an alcohol addiction problem should consider treatment, as alcohol use can have serious long-term physical and mental health implications,” added Laurenson.

SYMPTOMS OF ALCOHOL WITHDRAWAL 

Symptoms may include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Delirium (confusion)
  • Seizures
  • Clammy skin
  • Dilated pupils
  • Tremor (shakes)

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