Managing Withdrawal Symptoms in Seniors

Jun 14, 2016

Managing Withdrawal Symptoms in Seniors

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Substance abuse and alcoholism can affect anyone, young and old. Unfortunately, these issues are commonly overlooked in the elderly population, despite higher health risks.

Detecting a substance abuse problem in older adults can be difficult in the presence of other medical conditions and generational gaps. The symptoms of dementia, diabetes, and depression can all mimic the signs of drug use or alcoholism, so it’s not always clear when to search for help.

Compounding with the issue of trying to isolate elderly drug abuse or alcoholism, many members of older generations disapprove of and shame those who may have an addiction. This can often discourage people from speaking up or reaching out for fear of ridicule.

Risk Factors of Elderly Substance Abuse

With growing older come distinct changes in an individual’s biomedical interaction with drugs and alcohol. Substance abuse is known to accelerate the normal physiological decline associated with old age. This can increase the risk of injury, illness, and socioeconomic status – things that are already issues for the elderly population.

Despite these difficulties, it’s absolutely vital to get help if you or an elderly loved one is suffering from addiction or alcoholism.

Depending on how long the addiction or abuse has persisted, you’ll need to treat the recovery process with care. Withdrawal symptoms can present immediate health risks as the body starts to readjust to its normal chemical balance.

Symptoms can occur as quickly as two hours after the last drink or within the next 12-24 hours after ceasing substance use including:

  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Headache
  • Shakiness
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens (DT)

More severe cases can cause life-threatening seizures, fever, intense confusion, hallucinations, and irregular heartbeats.

If you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms go to the emergency room or call 911 immediately.

Even with mild symptoms, a doctor’s appointment should be scheduled in order to decide what the best form of treatment would be.

The Road to Recovery

Doctors will first take a complete medical history and ask about how much someone has been drinking or abusing a particular substance. They will want to know the quantity of the intake, and how much time has elapsed since the last instance of use. Patients must disclose as much information as possible in order to receive the proper treatment.

Next, a physical exam will identify any complicating medical conditions such as heart diseases, gastrointestinal bleeding, infections, liver diseases, or nervous system impairment and pancreatitis. A blood test may also be ordered to measure one’s complete blood count, electrolyte levels, and liver function.

Rehabilitation Options

For help and support, your doctor is likely to recommend outpatient rehabilitation for mild to moderately severe cases of elderly substance abuse. This type of treatment is most effective with a supportive network of friends and family. Outpatient rehabilitation is a safe choice and less expensive than inpatient detoxification in a hospital or other facility. The main difference is that each patient is responsible for attending their treatments and following through with recommendations on their own.

Severe cases may be better treated by inpatient rehabilitative treatments, especially if the patient does not have a reliable network of social support or a history of:

  • Severe withdrawal symptoms
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens
  • Previous detoxifications
  • Specific medical or psychiatric illnesses

The main goals of rehabilitation centers are to reduce the immediate symptoms of withdrawal, prevent further complications, and initiate long-term therapies for recovery. Along with the services found through rehabilitation, patients may be prescribed certain medications to help manage the shakiness, anxiety, and confusion associated with withdrawal. These drugs include:

  • Valium
  • Librium
  • Ativan
  • Serax
  • Tegretol (recommended due to its low potential for abuse)

Withdrawal symptoms can be extremely unpleasant, and in some cases life-threatening. If you or an elderly loved one is suffering from substance abuse or alcoholism, don’t hesitate to seek help. Older adults run a much higher risk of serious health complications while abusing drugs or alcohol, so treat this issue very mindfully.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How prevalent is addiction in the elderly community?

Findings from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show that 20-30 percent of people ages 75 to 85 have experienced drinking problems and, according to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, 3.6 percent of adults aged 60 to 64 report using an illicit drug.

If you are concerned that your loved one has an addiction problem consider these drug treatment programs for seniors.

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How prevalent is medication abuse in the senior 65+ community?

Persons aged 65 years and older comprise only 13 percent of the population, yet account for more than one-third of total outpatient spending on prescription medications in the United States. Older patients are more likely to be prescribed long-term and multiple prescriptions, and some experience cognitive decline, which could lead to improper use of medications. Alternatively, those on a fixed income may abuse another person's remaining medication to save money. 

Prescription drug abuse in the elderly is more common than you think. If you believe your loved one is addicted to prescription drugs seek help immediately.

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