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COVID-19, Social Distancing and Alcohol Problems

March 27, 2020

The Quarantini is the cheekily-named beverage many are clutching while social-distancing, but the danger the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic might bring to those with alcohol use disorder is more sobering.

If supplies run out or liquor stores are forced to close — there’s no indication now that will happen — many with alcohol use disorder could face dangerous withdrawal, according to Dr. J. Craig Allen, medical director of Rushford and vice president of addiction services with the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network.

“Withdrawal can start within hours of stopping or decreasing alcohol intake,” he said.

Because the side effects can be lethal, Dr. Allen suggested anyone with alcohol use disorder facing voluntary or involuntary withdrawal talk with a healthcare provider first. That applies to daily drinkers – a man who drinks more than four a day or 14 a week, or a woman drinking more than three a day or 7 a week.

Because the side effects can be lethal, Dr. Allen suggested people who have been drinking alcohol daily for a significant period of time and who are now decreasing or stopping should talk to their healthcare provider first. Anyone exceeding the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) criteria for safe drinking can be at risk.

NIAAA criteria for risky drinking– a man who drinks more than four a day or 14 a week, or a woman drinking more than three a day or 7 a week.

“If you have been exceeding these criteria or have ever experienced withdrawal symptoms  it is important to talk with your healthcare provider before you attempt to stop drinking,” Dr. Allen said.

The common alcohol withdrawal symptoms are:

  • Tremor
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Cravings for alcohol

These, according to Dr. Allen, generally resolve within a day or two but if you’ve experienced them it indicates a risk for more concerning symptoms.

The more concerning symptoms, he continued, include:

  • Visual or auditory hallucinations.
  • Seizures, which can cause serious harm and even death, usually happen within 24 hours but can occur as long as five days after the last drink. Up to 25 percent of people with moderate to severe alcohol use disorder will experience seizures with withdrawal, Dr. Allen said.
  • Delirium tremens, also called the DTs, develop between 48 and 96 hours after the last drink. This state can include confusion, persistent hallucinations, agitation, tremulousness, high blood pressure, tachycardia and fever. Five percent of those with alcohol use disorder will experience the DTs when they stop drinking.

“Severe withdrawal can result in seizures and delirium tremens (DTs) which can be life-threatening,” Dr. Allen said. “Untreated DTs has a mortality rate of up to 30 percent, so it’s important to know that your doctor can prescribe a number of medications that can decrease the risks and improve the comfort of withdrawal symptoms. And, if necessary, there are inpatient programs that can provide close medical monitoring and treatment for those at highest risk.”

For more information on how the Hartford HealthCare Medication Assisted Treatment Close to Home (MATCH) program can help people stop drinking, click here.

Not feeling well? Call your healthcare provider for guidance and try to avoid going directly to an emergency department or urgent care center, as this could increase the chances of the disease spreading.

Click here to schedule a virtual visit with a Hartford HealthCare-GoHealth Urgent care doctor.Stay with Hartford HealthCare for everything you need to know about the coronavirus threat. Click here for information updated daily.

Questions? Call our 24-hour hotline (860.972.8100 or, toll-free, 833.621.0600). 

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