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Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium

Alcohol withdrawal delirium, also known as delirium tremens, is rare for alcoholics but can lead to complications during alcohol withdrawal. In fact, in cases of severe alcoholism and intense alcohol withdrawal, complications can require professional treatment. Alcohol withdrawal delirium is usually only experienced by heavy drinkers, but the consequences can be fatal.

Complications of alcohol withdrawal delirium include alcohol-related liver disease, alcoholic cardiomyopathy, alcoholic neuropathy, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Alcohol-related liver disease may be one of the most common symptoms of heavy drinking. This is because the liver is one of the main organs affected by alcohol consumption. The liver is responsible for degrading and breaking down most of the alcohol consumed in the human body, allowing the toxins from the substance to be removed from the body. However, in the process, the broken-down substances become even more harmful than alcohol to specific parts of the body, such as the liver. These substances can damage liver cells and may cause serious liver disease. In fact, alcohol is the cause of 80% of the deaths resulting from liver disease. These forms of liver disease include:

  • Fatty liver (steatosis)
  • Inflammation of the liver (hepatitis)
  • Acute alcoholic hepatitis
  • Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)
  • Liver failure and death

Fatty liver or steatosis is the most common type of alcoholic liver disease. Fat and adipose tissue build up in the liver, making it extremely difficult for the liver to function efficiently. The fat build-up prevents the liver from working properly.

Inflammation of the liver or hepatitis can also be caused by heavy alcohol consumption. About a third of individuals with a fatty liver will develop a mild to moderate inflammation of the liver. This inflamed liver is known as alcoholic hepatitis. Alcoholic hepatitis is extremely risky because symptoms usually do not surface right away, making it more difficult for alcoholics to realize they have hepatitis. This is especially true if the patient is constantly under the influence.

Acute alcoholic hepatitis is much more serious than inflammation of the liver and can be even more life-threatening. Inflammation from acute alcoholic hepatitis can cause:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Sickness, nausea, and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Jaundice (yellow appearing skin)
  • Liver failure
  • Death

Sadly, around one out of three individuals who develop severe alcoholic hepatitis will die.

Scarring of the liver or cirrhosis is also common among heavy drinkers. Around 20% of alcoholics suffer from scarring of their liver. Alcohol disrupts the liver, releasing toxins that begin to cause scar tissue. Due to this degradation, excess amounts of scar tissue build up in the liver.

Over time, this scar tissue begins to replace normal healthy cells. This means that the liver will not work properly and has the potential to fail. Similar to hepatitis, cirrhosis may not cause symptoms right away. However, symptoms of liver cirrhosis include:

  • Feeling sickly
  • Vomiting blood
  • Swollen stomach
  • Loss of appetite
  • Itching
  • Muscle cramps

Treatment usually includes antibiotics and “water pills” which are used to remove fluid build-up from the abdomen. Left untreated, alcoholic liver disease can cause liver cancer and eventually kidney failure.

Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy

In addition, alcoholic cardiomyopathy is heart failure caused by the long-term use of alcohol. Treatment usually includes reducing sodium intake and a prescription for beta-blockers and ACE inhibitors. In more severe cases, a heart transplant may be needed if cardiomyopathy is not able to be effectively treated.

Alcoholic Neuropathy

Alcoholic neuropathy is damage to the nerves caused by heavy drinking. Symptoms include numbness, tingling, painful sensations, and muscle problems. Treatment usually relies on physical therapy and symptom management. This nerve damage is, more often than not, permanent.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Aside from the liver, alcohol also severely damages the brain. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder closely associated with alcoholics. Intense alcohol use often results in brain damage in the thalamus and hypothalamus, areas of the brain that regulate homeostasis and memory. Those with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome usually experience damage to the parts of their brain involved with memory. Vitamin B-1 can alleviate symptoms that involve muscle problems, but memory loss is often permanent.

Reducing The Risk of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Unfortunately, most alcoholics who develop cirrhosis and liver failure do not notice symptoms until it is too late and the damage is already done. This makes it immensely important to reduce the risk of liver damage. One obvious way to reduce the risk of liver damage is to cut down or even give up alcohol. All liver diseases improve in the absence of alcohol. In addition, an individual can reverse and avoid future fatty liver damage by not consuming alcohol. Unfortunately, there is no cure for cirrhosis, but cutting out alcohol for good enhances an individual’s chance of survival. In fact, individuals can live for decades with cirrhosis if they give up alcohol in time. Other aspects that reduce the impact of liver disease include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Not smoking
  • Getting regular, adequate, and healthy exercise
  • Eating a balanced diet and avoiding processed food
  • Drinking coffee
  • Getting sunlight (a low Vitamin D level is bad for liver diseases)

Importance of Early Intervention

Additionally, people with alcohol withdrawal delirium are also at increased risk of injuries from falling during a seizure, injuring themselves or someone else while confused, and developing an irregular heartbeat. Early treatment for alcohol withdrawal is essential since treatment significantly lowers the risks of complications and death.

With progressive medical treatment, alcohol withdrawal delirium has a very low death rate. Some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal do last for more than a year, often including mood swings, fatigue, and sleeplessness. The good news is that if an individual seeks help early enough, many of these complications can be reduced. At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we not only offer recovery care but also provide preventative care for other complications that arise for alcoholics.

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