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Alcohol Withdrawal can be Deadly

There is a lot of information circulating about alcohol detox and withdrawal symptoms. The jumble of details can be confusing for those dealing with an alcohol use disorder and their loved ones. Alcohol abuse is dangerous, damages the body, and impacts a person’s entire life. Detoxing from alcohol is a necessary first step towards recovery and sobriety. However, alcohol detox can also lead to withdrawal.

For the most part, alcohol withdrawal is uncomfortable and difficult, but not deadly. There is no way for someone to know how their body will handle alcohol detox unless they consult a doctor, though. Some people with alcohol use disorders are at a higher risk for delirium tremens and potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms.

With proper care and medically-supervised treatment, the effects of alcohol withdrawal can be minimized in a safe environment. Keep reading to learn why alcohol withdrawal can be deadly and how to safely detox from alcohol.


What are alcohol use disorders?

Alcohol use disorders may also be referred to as drinking problems. People who are unable to control their alcohol intake can develop binge drinking habits, alcohol abuse behaviors, or alcohol dependence. Alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease, often involving relapses, and it is estimated that 15 million people in America have an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol abuse puts a person in danger. Their safety is at risk and their health is affected by problems related to alcohol. Alcohol use disorders can range in severity and the symptoms will differ by individual.

What are some common symptoms of alcohol use disorders?

  • Lack of control over how much you drink
  • Inability to limit alcohol despite a desire to do so
  • Increased time spent drinking, recovering from alcohol use, or acquiring alcohol
  • Strong cravings for alcohol or urges to drink
  • Prioritizing alcohol over personal responsibilities, including work, home, or school
  • Continued drinking despite physical or social problems related to alcohol use
  • Alcohol use in unsafe situations, including driving
  • Increased tolerance to alcohol, requiring more alcohol to feel the same effects
  • Lack of interest in hobbies, social activities, or personal activities
  • Changes in mood
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking

How does alcohol abuse affect the body?

Alcohol impacts your central nervous system, depressing it and causing a person to feel sedated. Heavy drinking and prolonged drinking can lead to both short-term and long-term side effects. Drinking too much can cause slurred speech, impaired coordination, and impacted brain functions. Binge drinking can lead to more life-threatening symptoms like a coma or death.

Excessive drinking can impact every area of someone’s life, including their health. Alcohol abuse can impair a person’s judgement and lower their inhibitions. Increased motor vehicle accidents, increased accidental injury, relationship issues, poor performance at work, changes in mood, and legal problems can all result from alcohol abuse or dependence.

Alcohol abuse in one session or over time can also cause significant health problems. Here are some of the more common health issues related to alcohol abuse:

  • Liver disease
  • Cirrhosis
  • Gastritis
  • Pancreatitis
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Stroke
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Increased risk of diabetes or complications with diabetes
  • Involuntary rapid eye movement or weakened eye muscles
  • Birth defects or fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Osteoporosis
  • Numbness in hands and feet
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Medical interactions

What is alcohol withdrawal syndrome?

When someone with an alcohol use disorder suddenly stops drinking, they are likely to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome refers to a wide range of symptoms, from moderate to serious in severity. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can begin within six hours of the last drink and can last for several days. Severity of alcohol withdrawal depends on a variety of factors, including how much a person drinks and how often.

What causes it?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is caused by a dependency on alcohol and sudden changes in the body when alcohol is taken away. Alcohol alters the body’s central nervous system. When alcohol is gone or significantly reduced, the body can go into shock or experience uncomfortable symptoms.

Who’s at risk?

People who are addicted to alcohol or abuse alcohol regularly are at risk for alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Also, people with an alcohol use disorder who suddenly stop drinking may experience withdrawal symptoms. Those who have previously experienced withdrawal symptoms or experienced difficulties during alcohol detox in the past are at a higher risk of alcohol withdrawal syndrome.


What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome differs based on individual factors. Typically, people who have been drinking for longer periods of time or drinking heavily on a regular basis will experience more severe symptoms. Symptoms tend to start within six hours of the last drink and continue for about a week. For some, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can last for multiple weeks.

Mild Symptoms

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Mood changes

Severe Symptoms

  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures or status epilepticus
  • Delusions
  • Confusion
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heartrate
  • Dangerously high fever

What are delirium tremens symptoms?

Delirium tremens, or DTs, can start within 48 to 72 hours after the last drink. Delirium tremens involves the most serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which can potentially be fatal. Of people experiencing alcohol withdrawal, only about 5% have DTs. While death is possible from delirium tremens, the chance is low if someone receives proper treatment during alcohol detox.

Symptoms of delirium tremens can include:

  • Confusion or disoriented feelings
  • Hallucinations
  • Rapid heartrate
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Agitation
  • Stupor
  • Loss of consciousness

Who is at risk for delirium tremens?

Delirium tremens impacts only a small percentage of people experiencing withdrawal. A medical professional can properly examine someone to estimate their risk of experiencing delirium tremens and create the best alcohol detox plan.

Who’s at higher risk for of experiencing delirium tremens?

  • Older people
  • People with a history of heavy alcohol use on a daily basis
  • People with an acute illness during withdrawal
  • People with a history of DTs or withdrawal seizures
  • People with liver disease or abnormal liver function

How long does alcohol withdrawal last?

When someone who drinks heavily decides to suddenly stop drinking, withdrawal symptoms are likely to occur. The duration and intensity of withdrawal symptoms depends on how much they drink, how long they have been drinking, and any history of detox. For the majority of people going through alcohol detox, withdrawal symptoms last four to five days after the last drink.

Within the first six hours after the last drink, withdrawal symptoms can begin. Those with a history of heavy drinking may experience seizures at this time. Otherwise, symptoms remain mild. Symptoms can progress over the next 24 to 48 hours. Headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, and moderate symptoms are more common during this time. After 72 hours, symptoms may begin to lessen. For some, moderate symptoms can last for multiple weeks.


How can you safely detox from alcohol?

The dangers of alcohol withdrawal syndrome can cause fear and prevent people from seeking help. However, it is possible to safely detox from alcohol and begin the road to recovery. With proper medical treatment, the dangers of alcohol withdrawal syndrome are minimized and symptoms are handled in an appropriate manner.

Detoxing from alcohol at home is considered unsafe because the symptoms of withdrawal are unpredictable. In a treatment program, patients are safe thanks to a controlled environment and attentive medical staff. At home, people detoxing from alcohol have to worry about preparing meals, personal responsibilities, and their health while attempting to get sober.

Care

To avoid potentially fatal alcohol withdrawal symptoms, seek medical care. Detoxing from alcohol can be done in a treatment facility or rehabilitation center. A doctor will evaluate a person’s condition and recommend the best course of action for detox. If inpatient treatment is required, they can focus on recovery in a supportive and comfortable environment. Doctors and nurses onsite can handle more severe withdrawal symptoms if they arise.

Medication

Medically-supervised detox can also include the use of certain medications. A doctor may prescribe medicine to reduce the effects of alcohol withdrawal. Medical attention may also be needed if seizures or DTs occur during the detox process.

Ongoing Support

After completing a detox program, medical staff can provide ongoing care and support to help someone stay sober. Also, a doctor can develop a nutrition plan to help someone keep their vitamins balanced as they recover from alcohol withdrawal. Support groups, counselling, and other programs are available to help prevent a relapse after someone completes an alcohol detox treatment.


Sources:

https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders

https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/alcohol-withdrawal-symptoms-treatments#1

https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-dangers-of-alcohol-overdose

https://www.alcohol.org/medication/#medications-used-to-treat-alcoholism-and-alcohol-withdrawal-symptoms

Brooks V.
Brooks V.
Brooks has been a freelance journalist for the better part of two decades, as well as spending a decade as a crisis intervention counselor. Through his own work and researching the work of others throughout the many facets of the detox, crisis intervention, and mental health worlds he has been able to tell the stories of those worlds in an effort to help addicts and those with mental illnesses understand and navigate them.