Although relatively uncommon, death caused by alcohol withdrawal is undoubtedly possible. Severe alcoholics or people who consume alcohol excessively in a single episode (e.g., binge drinking) and stop suddenly may encounter potentially life-threatening complications.
Death from alcohol withdrawal is usually caused by a disorder known as delirium tremens (DTs). About 5 percent of individuals experiencing alcohol withdrawal will develop delirium tremens. DTs is a condition characterized by severe confusion, disorientation, hallucinations, and seizures. The risk of DTs developing is higher if the person has been drinking a substantial amount every day for a prolonged period.
About 1 in 20 individuals who develop DTs will die, but the risk of fatality is significantly lower among those who receive medical treatment during alcohol detox. This may be the most compelling reason why persons addicted to alcohol should seek medical supervision during the detox process.
Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal
When a person has reached a state of alcohol dependence, they will encounter withdrawal symptoms shortly following cessation of use. Withdrawal is a very unpleasant experience, both mentally and physically. Therefore, many excessive drinkers will return to their former behavior despite adverse consequences to forestall withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal transpires because persistent, heavy alcohol consumption will eventually alter the brain’s functioning and disrupt neurochemicals that carry messages through the CNS (central nervous system). The primary neurochemical linked to feelings such as relaxation and sedation is GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA also helps produce endorphins in the brain, which serve to induce feelings of reward and well-being.
Heavy alcohol use is associated with an imbalance of GABA and commonly results in several adverse mental and physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, such as the following:
- Heart palpitations
- Accelerated heart rate
- Anxiety and depression
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lack of appetite
- Shakiness and tremors
Delirium tremens symptoms may include the following:
- Altered mental functioning
- Deep sleep
- Fear and paranoia
- Sudden mood changes
Other severe symptoms of acute withdrawal include the following:
- Heart arrhythmia
- Kidney/liver dysfunction
- Seizure-related head injury
- High blood pressure
- Severe dehydration
In addition to alcohol’s dehydrating effects, detox itself can be dangerously dehydrating to the body. Moreover, the body uses any means necessary, such as vomiting, and diarrhea to expel alcohol and its toxic byproducts. Combining an alcohol user’s pre-existing dehydrated condition with withdrawal-related dehydration can produce life-threatening seizures.
The severity of withdrawal depends on several factors that vary from person to person. Factors may include the following:
- Duration of time alcohol has been abused
- Amount of alcohol recently consumed
- The frequency of alcohol use
- History of addiction to drugs or polysubstance use
- A family history of substance abuse or addiction
- Age, gender, and weight
If you are detoxing alone, which is not advised, it is essential to contact a medical professional if you begin to experience severe withdrawal symptoms. As noted, withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening if left untreated.
Alcohol Withdrawal Facts
Alcohol use releases dopamine, one of the body’s natural neurochemicals associated with the reward system, which also regulates energy levels and feelings of pleasure and motivation. This excess of dopamine can prompt some of the pleasant feelings that individuals with an addiction desire.
As a person’s body develops a higher tolerance for alcohol, the brain becomes more dependent on the substance to release dopamine. When a chronic, heavy drinker suddenly stops consuming alcohol, dopamine production halts, resulting in physiological and psychological withdrawal effects as the body attempts to reestablish balance.
Alcohol detox typically lasts for several days, but withdrawal is different for each individual. As the liver breaks down alcohol and moves the drug through a person’s system, and is expelled, withdrawal symptoms manifest. It can take 30 minutes to 2 hours for the body to absorb one serving of alcohol into the bloodstream.
Most alcohol detox programs last from several days to up to a week, and withdrawal usually wanes within this timeframe. Generally speaking, alcohol withdrawal symptoms come in three different stages: mild, moderate, and severe.
Mild withdrawal symptoms include headaches, mild tremors, and nausea, and typically onset 6-12 hours after an individual’s last drink. Moderate side effects of withdrawal include confusion, vomiting, sweating, and fever, which usually onset within 12-24 hours. Those who experience severe withdrawal symptoms, such as delirium tremens, may begin to encounter them between 2-3 days after alcohol consumption has ceased.
What Causes Delirium Tremens (DTs)
Scientists and researchers are still trying to determine the exact cause(s) of DTs. However, recent studies have shown that during alcohol withdrawal, the brain releases the excitatory neuron glutamate. This finding may at least partially explain the hyperactivity and other symptoms of delirium tremens that are presented.
Potentially fatal complications associated with DTs include respiratory arrest, cardiac arrhythmia, and aspiration pneumonitis. A person may be at an increased risk for DTs if they are middle-aged or older or have previously experienced or is experiencing any of the following:
- Seizures or DTs during previous attempts at alcohol withdrawal
- Co-existing mental health disorder(s)
- Impaired liver functioning
- Abuse of alcohol for an extended period
Delirium tremens can be difficult to identify, as some symptoms are comparable to those of acute alcohol withdrawal, such as confusion and trembling. However, acute alcohol withdrawal is rarely lethal, while DTs, as noted, can result in fatality. Also, there is a higher risk of death associated with DTs when the condition is not adequately treated using effective medical interventions.
Alcohol Detox Process
There are two ways an individual can detox from alcohol. One is by abruptly discontinuing use or “cold turkey,” and the other by gradually decreasing consumption or a method known as “tapering.”
Many individuals who detox on their own without medical help choose the cold turkey method. However, this approach can be risky, as it can result in the onset of withdrawal effects being more severe. In the face of relentless alcohol withdrawal symptoms, the person going through detox may relapse and put themselves at high risk for alcohol poisoning and other health complications.
If a person undergoes detox at a licensed facility, such as Just Believe Detox, he or she has a higher likelihood of experiencing a safe withdrawal. DTs often requires high-level pharmacotherapy, and, in extreme cases, a person with DTs may even need to stay in an intensive care unit. Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly in certain situations, so it’s critical that those detoxing to do so in a specialized treatment facility.
Of note, the tapering or weaning method is rarely used in clinical settings because it’s not required. Instead, it is effectively replaced using medications and other treatments that alleviate symptoms and make the entire process more comfortable and safer for the individual being treated.
Simply put, medical detox is the safest and most comfortable option for individuals who wish to stop drinking. Staff at Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery center offer around-the-clock supervision for those we treat during detox to manage pain, ensure vital signs are normal, and prevent any life-threatening complications from manifesting. Following detox, individuals are ready to begin treatment for alcohol use disorder.
Get Treatment for Alcoholism
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery center offer numerous treatment options and a comprehensive approach to the treatment of alcoholism. Our programs are intended to address both the disease’s physical and psychological aspects. During rehab, individuals are provided with clinically-proven services beneficial for the recovery process, including behavioral therapy, counseling, group support, aftercare planning, and more.