Although relatively rare, death as a result of alcohol withdrawal is possible. Severe alcoholics or people who drink alcohol excessively (e.g., binge drinking) and stop abruptly may face life-threatening complications.
Death from alcohol withdrawal is usually related to a condition called delirium tremens (DTs). About 5% of people experiencing alcohol withdrawal will develop delirium tremens. DTs is a condition hallmarked by profound confusion, disorientation, hallucinations, and seizures. The risk of DTs manifesting is higher if the person has been drinking a lot each day for a long time.
About 1 in 20 people who develop DTs will die, but the risk of death is significantly reduced for those who receive medical care during detox from alcohol. This fact may be the most compelling reason why people who are addicted to alcohol should receive professional medical supervision during detox.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
When someone has reached a state of alcohol dependence, they will experience withdrawal symptoms shortly following discontinuation of use. Withdrawal is a very uncomfortable experience, both physically and psychologically. Therefore, many heavy drinkers will return to drinking despite adverse consequences to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal occurs because persistent, excessive alcohol consumption will eventually alter the brain’s functioning and disrupt neurotransmitters that carry messages through the central nervous system (CNS). The primary neurotransmitter linked to the production of feelings such as relaxation and sedation is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA also helps generate endorphins in the brain, which serve to produce feelings of well-being.
Excessive alcohol use results in an imbalance of GABA, and commonly leads to several adverse physical and mental symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, including the following:
- Heart palpitations
- Rapid heart rate
- Anxiety and depression
- Mood swings
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Shakiness and tremors
Delirium tremens symptoms may include:
- Altered mental functions
- Deep sleep
- Fear and paranoia
- Abrupt mood changes
Other severe symptoms of acute withdrawal may include:
- Heart arrhythmia
- Kidney and liver dysfunction
- Seizure-related head injury
- High blood pressure
In addition to alcohol’s dehydrating effects, detox can be dangerously dehydrating to the body. Moreover, the body uses any means necessary, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and sweating, to eliminate alcohol and its toxic byproducts. Combining an alcohol user’s pre-existing dehydrated condition with withdrawal-related dehydration can induce life-threatening seizures.
The intensity of withdrawal symptoms depends on many factors that vary between individuals. Factors may include the following:
- Length of time alcohol has been abused
- Amount of alcohol consumed
- The frequency of alcohol consumption
- History of addiction or polysubstance use
- A family history of addiction
- Gender, weight, and age
If you are detoxing alone (not advised), it is vital to contact a medical provider if you begin to experience severe withdrawal symptoms after you quit using alcohol. As noted, withdrawal symptoms can become life-threatening if left unaddressed.
Alcohol Withdrawal Facts
Alcohol releases dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical neurotransmitter linked to the body’s reward system, a center that also regulates energy levels and feelings of enjoyment and motivation. This surplus of dopamine can trigger some of the pleasant feelings that addicts covet.
As the body begins to develop a higher tolerance for alcohol, the brain grows more dependent on the substance for the release of dopamine. When a chronic, excessive drinker abruptly stops drinking, dopamine production halts, resulting in physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms as the body attempts to restabilize.
Alcohol detox usually lasts for several days, but withdrawal is different for each person. As the liver metabolizes alcohol and moves the drug through the system, withdrawal symptoms onset. It can take 30-120 minutes for the body to assimilate one serving of alcohol into the bloodstream.
Most alcohol detox programs last from a few days to up to one week, and withdrawal usually subsides within that timeframe. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms come in three different stages: mild, moderate, and severe. Mild withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, mild tremors, and nausea, typically onset 6-12 hours after a person’s last drink.
Moderate side effects of withdrawal, including vomiting, sweating, confusion, and fever, typically onset within 12-24 hours. Those who suffer severe withdrawal symptoms, such as delirium tremens, may begin to experience them between 48-72 hours after alcohol use has ceased.
What Causes Delirium Tremens?
Researchers are still attempting to determine the exact cause(s) of delirium tremens. Recent studies have shown, however, that during alcohol withdrawal, the brain releases glutamate, an excitatory neuron. This finding may explain the hyperactivity and other symptoms of delirium tremens that manifest.
Potential lethal complications associated with delirium tremens include respiratory arrest, cardiac arrhythmia, and aspiration pneumonitis. An individual may be at an increased risk for delirium tremens if they are middle-aged or older, or have experienced or is experiencing any of the following:
- Seizures or DTs during previous withdrawal
- Co-occurring mental health condition
- Impaired liver function
- Abuse of alcohol for a prolonged period
Delirium tremens can be challenging to identify, as some symptoms are similar to those of acute alcohol withdrawal, such as trembling and confusion. However, acute alcohol withdrawal is rarely fatal, while DTs, as noted, can be lethal. Also, the risk of death associated with DTs is higher when the condition is not properly addressed using effective medical treatment.
Alcohol Detox Process
There are two ways a person can detox from alcohol: “cold turkey” (abruptly discontinuing use) or by gradually reducing consumption, which is a method known as “tapering.”
Many people who detox on their own without medical assistance opt for the cold turkey method. This approach, however, can be dangerous, as it can result in the onset of withdrawal effects being more intense. In the face of harrowing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, the person going through detox may relapse hard and put themselves in danger of alcohol poisoning and other complications.
If a person undergoes detox at an accredited facility, such as Harmony Recovery Center, he or she has a higher chance of experiencing a safe withdrawal. Delirium tremens often requires high-level pharmacotherapy, and, in extreme instances, the individual with DTs may even need to stay in an intensive care unit. Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal in certain situations, so it’s vitally important for those detoxing to do so in a specialized medical facility.
Simply put, a professional medical detox is the safest and most comfortable option for those who wish to stop drinking. Harmony Ridge Recovery monitors patients around-the-clock during detox to manage pain, ensure vital signs are at normal levels, and forestall any life-threatening complications from occurring.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Following detox, patients are ready to begin treatment for alcohol addiction. Harmony Recovery Center offers many different treatment options, including both inpatient and outpatient rehab.
We offer a comprehensive approach to the treatment of alcoholism and address both the physical and psychological aspects of the disease. During rehab, patients are provided with multiple services that are clinically-proven to be vital to the recovery process. These include behavioral therapy, counseling, group support, aftercare planning, and more.
If you are suffering from an addiction to alcohol, contact us today! Discover how we can help you free yourself from the grips of substance abuse and begin to experience the fulfilling and happy life you deserve!