Alcoholism - Treatment

Treatment of alcoholism takes place in two steps: detoxification and rehabilitation. Detoxification involves helping a person to stop drinking and ridding his or her body of the harmful (toxic) effects of alcohol.

Detoxification and Withdrawal

Detoxification is often difficult because a person's body becomes accustomed to the intake of alcohol. When alcohol is no longer available, the body goes through a period known as withdrawal. The ease and success of withdrawal depends on the person's prior drinking habits. The amount of alcohol consumed on a regular basis and the length of time the person has been drinking determines the difficulty of the withdrawal process.

Mild withdrawal symptoms may include nausea, achiness, diarrhea, difficulty in sleeping, excessive sweating, trembling, and anxiety. These symptoms often disappear in less than a week. Patients going through a mild withdrawal usually require no medical attention other than observation to see that their symptoms do not become worse.

An individual who has been dependent on alcohol for a long period of time may experience more serious withdrawal symptoms. Such symptoms include fever, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, seizures, and hallucinations, which may take the form of delirium tremens (DT). A person suffering from DT has uncontrollable shaking, panic attacks (see panic disorders entry), and severe hallucinations. DT usually begin about three to five days after the patient's last drink and may last up to a week. During this time, the patient must be monitored.

Patients going through serious withdrawal generally require medical attention. For example, they are often given sedatives to avoid the potentially life-threatening consequences of high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, and seizures.


Rehabilitation may involve the use of both medications and recovery programs. Some chemicals act as a deterrent to drinking because when they interact with alcohol they produce nausea, vomiting, and other unpleasant physical effects. One drug that has been used with some positive results is disulfiram (pronounced di-SUL-fuh-ram; trade name Antabuse). Drugs by themselves are often not very effective, however, since they do not deal with some of the reasons that may have contributed to a person becoming an alcoholic.

Recovery programs help alcoholics to understand why they abuse alcohol and to find ways to avoid drinking in the future. Some of the most effective rehabilitation programs involve peer groups in which recovering alcoholics meet regularly and provide support for each other. Perhaps the best known of these groups is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The AA recovery program is based on a 12-step model. These steps include the need to recognize the destructive power that alcohol has over an alcoholic's life, the damage that alcoholism has done to others involved personally or professionally with the alcoholic, and the need to turn to a higher power for help in overcoming the problem.

Alternative Treatment

The lives of alcoholics and those around them are quite stressful. Whether stress leads to alcoholism or is a direct result of alcoholism is up for debate. In either case, stress-relieving therapies may help a person avoid alcohol consumption. These therapies include massage, meditation, and hydrotherapy (water therapy).

The harmful physical effects of alcoholism can also be treated by alternative therapies. Vitamins and mineral supplements, for example, can be used to treat malnutrition. The herb known as milk thistle is thought to protect the liver. Other herbs, such as lavender, skullcap, chamomile, peppermint, and yarrow, are believed by some to help an alcoholic through withdrawal. Acupuncture (a Chinese therapy technique where fine needles puncture the body) has also been recommended to decrease withdrawal symptoms and to prevent a return to drinking.

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