The ongoing ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products during the lockdown has tortured and left addicted South Africans with severe withdrawal symptoms.
This is according to substance use disorder specialist Dr Duncan Laurenson.
Laurenson, who manages the detoxification programme at Akeso Stepping Stones and Kenilworth in Cape Town, said the extended lockdown had caused some to run out of their personal stock of alcohol and they may now be in withdrawal, which can be life-threatening in some cases.
“There is little doubt that the ban on alcohol has brought with it a number of benefits to our society including a reduction in violence and trauma as a result of accidents caused by intoxication,” said Laurenson.
The government’s decision to ban the sale of these products was influenced by the need to flatten the curve of Covid-19 infections, however Laurenson said the ban could potentially have 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.
“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.
He said statistics published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2019, indicated that South Africans were among the heaviest drinkers in the world.
“It may surprise many people to learn that in the high-risk individual, alcohol withdrawal is more dangerous than any other type of drug withdrawal,” said Laurenson.
While the ban had proven to have an impact with some types of crime going down, Laurenson said the history of heavy drinking equally had to be monitored.
“This is particularly important if the individual has had a long history of heavy drinking, is over the age of 50, and has also had a previous history of seizures, heart attack or stroke, as they are at particularly high risk of suffering serious, and even potentially fatal, withdrawal symptoms.”
He said people who regularly use alcohol often become physically and mentally dependent to the extent that when they are no longer able to have them, they experience a surge of adrenaline and cravings. This created withdrawal syndrome which ranged 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.
“Delirium tremens symptoms, also known as the DTs, are a potentially dangerous expression of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The DTs describe a state of confusion that produces hallucinations and delusions, which generally occur within 24–72 hours after stopping alcohol consumption, but they can appear more than a week after the last drink.
Laurenson said if the symptoms went untreated, it could result in a 5%-10% chance of death.
He said some common symptoms in those with a history of heavy drinking included that they start to shudder and shake, become delirious and/or suffer a seizure.
He urged those suffering from the symptoms to get urgent treatment at a health facility or hospital.
“If the individual concerned is suffering from delirium or has a seizure, however, you should call an emergency medical services provider so that they can receive medical treatment urgently. 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.