There are four main categories of intoxicating drugs: depressants, stimulants, painkillers, and hallucinogens. Alcohol is classified as a CNS (central nervous system) depressant. This designation indicates that it mitigates activity in the CNS and can ultimately induce effects such as perilously depressed respiration, slowed heart rate, and low body temperature.
However, alcohol can induce some stimulating properties due to its ability to boost dopamine, a feel-good neurochemical, in the brain. These effects occur soon after consumption but are only temporary. Alcohol’s overall action on the body is to reduce activity, so at some point, if the person continues to drink, its sedative effects will ultimately win the battle.
And although technically alcohol is not considered a hallucinogen, in instances of extreme intoxication or withdrawal, hallucinations related to psychosis can and do occur. However, it is vital to note that these effects are generally not the amusing, trippy high and altered perceptions of a true hallucinogen, such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms.
These hallucinations are a product of psychosis, hallmarked by confusion and delusions that can be extremely unpleasant, even terrifying. If this condition develops as a result of drinking, the individual is very sick and can be a danger to himself and others.
What Is Alcohol-Induced Psychotic Disorder?
Delusions, hallucinations, and persistent and unwanted thoughts induced by excessive or chronic alcohol abuse is referred to as alcohol-induced psychotic disorder (AIPD). Three forms of psychosis can arise related to alcohol consumption: acute alcohol intoxication, alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and chronic alcohol use disorder (AUD). Symptoms usually onset during an episode of drinking or soon thereafter.
AIPD is a secondary psychosis related to a different disorder than primary psychosis, such as with schizophrenia. This means that the condition is prompted by exposure to something extrinsic to the individual, rather than abnormalities in brain structures that are organic and pre-existing.
Although AIPD is relatively uncommon, psychosis rates are higher among persons struggling with alcohol dependence—about 4% of those who frequently abuse alcohol. Once an individual develops AIPD, the psychotic episode can last for between one and six months. However, it may significantly lessen in intensity after just a few days with proper medical treatment, but may resume during repeated incidents of alcohol exposure.
Experiencing severe side effects related to psychosis places a person at risk of accidents and injury. Therefore, the condition can, in some cases, prove to be harmful and even lethal.
Acute Intoxication and AIPD
Acute intoxication is a concerning diagnosis that refers to excessive consumption in a single episode leading to traumatic and potentially life-threatening complications. Fortunately, in most cases of hospitalization related to intoxication-caused psychosis, the condition ends when alcohol has been cleared from the system.
Signs of acute intoxication with AIPD include the following:
- Abnormal aggression
- Prolonged episodes of sleep
- Impaired consciousness
- Memory loss
Psychotic Disorders Related to Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal delirium (AWD), also commonly referred to as delirium tremens, is a rare disorder that can develop during alcohol detox and withdrawal, especially if a person stops drinking abruptly after excessive consumption for an extended period. AWD is considered the most severe and dangerous potential consequence of alcohol withdrawal.
Most people with alcohol addiction will encounter at least some withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop drinking. Among those, 3-5% will experience AWD symptoms such as seizures and severe confusion.
Symptoms of AWD include:
- Agitation and irritability
- Chest pain
- Excessive sweating
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Accelerated heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Increased startle reflex
- Involuntary muscle contractions
- Nausea and vomiting
- Nightmares and sleep disturbances
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Mood swings
- Abdominal pain
- Hallucinations and delusions
- Involuntary eye movements
Symptoms related to AWD do not onset immediately after an individual stops consuming alcohol. Headache, anxiety, insomnia, heart rate fluctuations, and sweating onset within 6-12 hours after the last drink. After 12 hours, the individual may start to hallucinate, and after 24 hours, seizures can occur.
For this reason and others, a person who is dependent on alcohol should receive professional medical help when detoxing from alcohol to prevent AWD. Health providers can use specific diagnostic criteria to determine how severe a person’s experience of alcohol withdrawal may become, such as by monitoring body temperature, hydration levels, heart rate, and conducting a toxicology screening.
Chronic Alcohol Consumption and Psychosis
Prolonged heavy use of alcohol will alter vital brain structures, which can, in turn, lead to the development of psychotic conditions. Persons who are alcohol-dependent tend not to eat healthily and suffer from malnutrition. This behavior can also cause damage to the digestive tract and lead to forms of dementia with related psychotic symptoms.
People who suffer from a chronic AUD can experience different forms of psychosis, including alcohol hallucinosis, alcoholic paranoia, and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. With alcohol hallucinosis, hallucinations are primarily auditory, but may also manifest as tactile or visual. Rapid mood swings and delusions characterize the condition, and it may ultimately resemble schizophrenia or delirium tremens in presentation.
Alcoholic paranoia (also known as alcohol paranoid state) is a condition hallmarked by extreme anxiety, fear of being watched, followed, or persecuted, unwarranted jealousy, and other symptoms associated with paranoid ideations. It is the result of changes in the brain caused by drinking too much alcohol for too long.
Alcohol-Induced Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a neurological disorder that includes both acute and chronic phases of a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency disease known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff psychosis, respectively. A depletion of thiamine is a common complication of chronic and excessive alcohol consumption. These conditions can manifest independently, but they are closely related and commonly occur together.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy (commonly referred to as wet brain) symptoms can include confusion, ataxia (loss of muscular coordination), abnormal eye movements and vision changes, and eyelid drooping. If left untreated, the associated diminished level of consciousness could lead to coma and death. Korsakoff syndrome involves hallucinations, mild-severe memory loss, inability to form new memories, confabulation, and replacing old memories with false ones.
A person with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome should not rely on abstinence alone for relief. In addition to discontinuing alcohol use, treatment should involve thiamine replacement therapy and proper nutrition and hydration. Treatment goals consist of the management of symptoms and preventing the disorder from getting worse and causing permanent, severe disability.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Alcohol is not a hallucinogen. The presence of hallucinations or psychotic symptoms during an episode of alcohol use or withdrawal is not a normal product of drinking. It is a strong indication that a medical emergency is at hand, and the person requires professional treatment for this condition immediately. If you or someone you know is encountering these effects, please call 911 or visit the nearest hospital as soon as possible.
People who suffer from alcoholism are urged to undergo detox immediately, which should be closely followed by comprehensive, long-term addiction treatment. Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers offer programs in both inpatient and partial hospitalization formats, which employ an integrated approach that includes psychotherapy, counseling, group support, and more.
Our caring, highly-trained staff are dedicated to helping people in the throes of alcoholism and drug addiction to reclaim their lives and begin to experience long-lasting health and wellbeing. Contact us as soon as possible to discuss treatment options and discover how we can help!