Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States. Despite its legality and high availability, alcohol, when abused, can result in a wealth of physical and emotional problems. Also, over time, the brain becomes accustomed to its presence, and when a person tries to quit, they will experience adverse and sometimes even life-threatening effects.
When alcohol enters the brain, it produces increased levels of dopamine and GABA. Both are neurotransmitters that the brain uses to tell the rest of the body how to feel and respond. Dopamine affects feelings of pleasure and reward, motivation, and many other essential functions. Meanwhile, GABA controls and moderates stress reactions. As GABA levels increase, the central nervous system (CNS) becomes depressed, and breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure are all reduced.
Alcohol abuse adversely alters the natural levels of these vital chemicals. The more the brain grows accustomed to this abnormal intrusion, the more it will become reliant on alcohol to keep levels in balance. Once a person becomes addicted to alcohol, dopamine and GABA activity are persistently altered, leading to unpleasant and even dangerous complications when they attempt to quit drinking abruptly.
Moreover, a person should never quit drinking cold turkey without medical care and supervision. According to Dictionary.com, the phrase “cold turkey” describes “the abrupt and complete cessation of taking a drug to which one is addicted.”
Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal
Most people who are dependent on alcohol will experience some withdrawal symptoms when they quit drinking cold turkey. Research findings have varied, but it has been suggested that at least 3% of people who do this will suffer from a severe condition known as delirium tremens (DTs). This disorder is characterized by seizures, confusion, agitation, hallucinations, or all of the above.
In addition to these, people may also experience perilously high fevers. Seizures, hyperthermia, arrhythmias, and other complications related to co-occurring disorders can prove fatal during DTs without immediate medical attention.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually begin within around eight hours following the last drink and are at their worst in about 2-3 days. In the case of DTs, hallmark symptoms may not manifest for up to three days after a person decides to quit drinking cold turkey. This fact makes the condition even more dangerous since the person may falsely believe the problem has resolved and they do not need medical attention.
In general, the severity of the effects of alcohol withdrawal is closely associated with the intensity of the person’s dependence. This fact implies that someone who drinks excessively on a regular basis for a prolonged period will suffer the most.
Combining other drugs, particularly other CNS depressants, can advance a person’s level of dependence and further compound withdrawal symptoms. Also, the presence of co-occurring mental health or medical problems can exacerbate the risks and intensity of withdrawal.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from relatively mild to life-threatening. The following are potential withdrawal symptoms:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle weakness
- Clammy skin
- Irritability or agitation
- Appetite loss
- Accelerated heart rate
- Cognitive impairment
- Mood swings
- Anxiety or depression
- Short-term memory loss
Other Hazardous Side Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol addiction and episodes of regular drinking can result in malnourishment, as people may eat fewer balanced meals. Also, alcohol withdrawal can cause stomach upset and appetite loss. Alcohol abuse can deplete the body of much-needed vitamins and nutrients as well.
For example, alcohol can cause a deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine), and, in fact, as many as 80% of people struggling with alcoholism suffer from it. A thiamine deficiency can induce a condition known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE). WE is a disorder that can result in profound mental confusion, as well as a lack of control over eye movement and motor coordination.
Most of the time, Wernicke’s encephalopathy progresses into Korsakoff syndrome. This condition is characterized by difficulty forming new memories, learning problems, confusion, and confabulation.
Impairment in learning and memory deficiencies in addition to problems with motor skills make Korsakoff syndrome a severe disorder that requires specialized treatment. In fact, it is estimated that only about 25% of people will recover fully from the disease.
Dehydration is yet another possible complication of alcohol withdrawal, and this can result in a profound electrolyte imbalance. Alcohol itself is dehydrating, and the vomiting and diarrhea that often occur during alcohol withdrawal serve to make this problem even worse.
Severe dehydration can result in mental confusion and a disturbance in the autonomic functions of the CNS. This further increases the potential for a dangerous withdrawal period. High levels of anxiety, panic, and depression can also be challenging during alcohol withdrawal and may result in suicidal thoughts or self-harm.
Minimizing the Risks of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal can be severe and very uncomfortable. The adverse effects and intense cravings for alcohol often make it hard for people to avoid relapse unless they have a safe, alcohol-free environment and medical help.
Indeed, the risks associated with alcohol withdrawal can be minimized through medical detox. This method is always recommended in instances of alcohol withdrawal.
During a medical detox program, the person will be supervised in a special facility where they can safely stop drinking while toxins related to alcohol are processed out of their system. Oftentimes, medications such as benzodiazepines or barbiturates can be used to replace the effects of alcohol.
Other pharmaceuticals may be beneficial in helping to manage certain symptoms of withdrawal. Sleep aids, mood stabilizers, pain relievers, and medications to ease upset stomach and vomiting may also be administered.
During detox, intravenous fluids can also be given to prevent or reverse dehydration. Nutritional balance can be reestablished through carefully planned meals. Medical professionals will monitor vital signs and emotional health regularly to ensure each patient is safe and as comfortable as possible during medical detox.
On average, a person will remain in a medical detox program for between 5-7 days. This period may be shorter or longer, depending on the individual needs of the patient.
Support during detox can also address the potential dangers related to alcohol withdrawal and help the person to become physically and mentally stable. One of the primary goals is to ensure the patient is prepared to enter a comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment program immediately following withdrawal.
Getting Help for Alcoholism
Detox is a vital first step, but it should be immediately followed by a complete addiction treatment program that includes the following:
- Behavioral therapies
- Individual and family counseling
- Support group participation
- Substance abuse education
- Health and wellness education
- Medication-assisted treatment
- Complementary therapies
- Aftercare planning
Harmony Recovery Center offers an integrated, research-based approach to addiction treatment. We design our programs to be unique to the individual to ensure their needs and goals are met. We are dedicated to providing each client with the tools they need to have the best chance for long-term success.
If you are motivated to break free from alcoholism, contact us today! We can help you reclaim your life and experience the joy and fulfillment you deserve!