Untreated alcoholism is a potentially terminal disease consisting of four stages. End- or late-stage alcoholism is the last, and persons who reach this stage are often challenging to treat and experience a high mortality rate. That said, in some cases, damage may be at least partially reversible, and many individuals can experience longer, happier lives if they quit drinking and seek treatment for other vital health issues.
Moreover, the sooner a person receives medical treatment, the more effectively alcoholism, and its many complications can be treated. For this reason and others, knowing what to look for in a person who is suffering from severe alcoholism is critical.
The Development of End-Stage Alcoholism
Like other types of addiction, alcoholism develops in four general stages that are characterized by the following:
The first stage of alcoholism is often referred to as the experimental stage. During this time, individuals will use a substance for the first few times due to curiosity or peer pressure. Substance use is mostly periodic and controllable, and many people never progress beyond this point.
Stage 2 is commonly known as the social stage. Here, a person is most likely to consume alcohol in a social situation to reduce inhibitions and relax. For example, an individual may go out and two or three drinks once a week with co-workers during happy hour. They do not typically get drunk, nor do they escalate their use or lose control entirely.
Stage 3 is the instrumental stage in which indisputable evidence of substance abuse can be identified. Examples include drinking to dull emotions or cope with daily stresses. As use escalates, tolerance develops, and more alcohol will need to be consumed to achieve the sought-after effects. In addition to tolerance, dependence also develops as the brain and body adapt to the presence of a psychoactive substance. This condition is associated with withdrawal symptoms when a person tries to quit using drugs or alcohol.
Stage 4, also known as the compulsive stage, is characterized by full-blown addiction. Here, alcohol becomes a person’s priority in life, and he or she will do almost anything to obtain it. The person may often feel ashamed and withdrawn and attempt to conceal the extent of their alcohol use. The person’s mental and physical health may deteriorate rapidly, and he or she may incur severe consequences related to family, legal, or financial issues.
Physical Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
One of the primary physical symptoms of end-stage alcoholism is that the person suffering is chronically intoxicated. When sober, he or she is likely in a state of withdrawal. This condition is associated with a variety of unpleasant and potentially life-threatening symptoms, including the following:
- Dilated pupils
- Severe headaches
- Clammy, pale skin
- Lack of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Accelerated heartbeat
- Shakiness and Tremors
- Profuse sweating
Withdrawal from alcohol can be lethal, and for this reason, should only be attempted under medical professionals’ supervision. Seizures may occur within four days in more than 5% of patients experiencing a sudden discontinuation cessation of alcohol after years of excessive abuse.
Dying From Alcoholism: Cardiac Complications
There are also cardiac complications that may occur in the end-stage alcoholic. The heart is continuously being damaged by alcohol while a person is chronically drinking. Also, if he or she stops for any extended period, the autonomic nervous system causes his or her heart rate to spike. If the heart is already in a compromised condition due to years of alcoholism and related nutritional deficiencies, there is an increased risk of heart attack.
Cardiomyopathy can be lethal and should be addressed immediately. A late-stage alcoholic should see a health provider if he or she is experiencing the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling in feet, legs, or ankles
- Fatigue and weakness
- Dizziness or fainting
- Extreme loss of appetite
- Weak or irregular pulse
Alcoholic Liver Disease
Although many people can consume alcohol without ever causing permanent damage to their livers, long-term, heavy drinkers are not likely to be this lucky. Alcoholic liver disease includes fatty liver and cirrhosis (scarring of liver tissues) and may also lead to hepatitis.
The liver is a regenerative organ, and fatty liver and other conditions are reparable. Unfortunately, cirrhosis is not reparable and may necessitate a liver transplant when failure becomes imminent.
Signs and symptoms of liver disease, including the following:
- Edema, or accumulation of fluid in the legs
- Ascites, or accumulation of fluid in the abdomen
- Jaundice, or yellowing of skin and whites of the eyes
- Redness of the palms
- In men, testicle shrinking and breast growth
- Easy bruising and abnormal bleeding
If you or someone you know and is suffering from any of these signs or symptoms, please contact a physician immediately.
Wet brain, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a neurological disease most commonly found among late-stage alcoholics. It develops due to a deficiency in vitamin B1 (thiamine), an essential nutrient not produced naturally by the body that must be consumed regularly to achieve an adequate daily amount.
This deficiency tends to occur among alcoholics because they often eat poorly, and alcohol itself also suppresses thiamine metabolism. It does this by suppressing the enzyme that activates thiamine and removes it from the liver. Thiamine is vital for the production of several brain neurochemicals, and in inadequate amounts, brain tissues will begin to deteriorate.
Wet brain syndrome consists of two different conditions—Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Wernicke’s encephalopathy symptoms include the following:
- Loss of mental activity that can result in unconsciousness or death
- Lack of muscle coordination that can lead to a slow, unsteady gait
- Severe memory impairments
The vast majority of alcoholics who suffer from Wernicke’s will also develop Korsakoff’s syndrome, which is characterized by the following:
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Violent episodes
- Vision changes
- Droppy eyelids
Alcoholic wet brain is not considered curable or reversible and is lethal in up to 20% of cases. However, if a doctor diagnoses the condition in time for treatment, the disease’s progression can be slowed or possibly halted if the person can quit drinking.
End-Stage Alcoholism Life Expectancy
Once a person has been diagnosed with any of the severe complications that occur with late-stage alcoholism, their life expectancy can be as little as six months. Of note, severe alcoholism is also associated with an increased risk of pancreatitis and many forms of cancer, including those related to the mouth, throat, breast, stomach, and colon.
A Word Alcohol Overdose (Alcohol Poisoning)
Unlike many other substances, such as heroin, it’s not easy to fatally overdose on alcohol. Still, around 2,300 people are this unfortunate each year in the U.S. Binge drinking is the main culprit in these cases, and a blood alcohol concentration of 0.3-0.4% can be lethal. Fatal effects are also more likely to occur when alcohol is consumed in combination with other central nervous system depressants, such as opioids or benzodiazepines.
Getting Help for Alcoholism
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers offer integrated drug and alcohol treatment programs in partial hospitalization and residential formats. These programs feature various services and activities beneficial for the recovery process, including psychotherapy, group support, individual and family counseling, aftercare planning, and more.