Alcohol is among the most commonly used addictive substances in the U.S. and worldwide. Despite its legality in most areas and high availability, alcohol, when used in excess, can lead to a myriad of physical, emotional, and social issues. If a person drinks alcohol consistently for an extended period, the brain and body become used to its chemical presence—a condition known as dependence.
Once dependence takes hold, if the individual attempts to quit or cut back, they will encounter uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and even life-threatening withdrawal effects. Indeed, although legal and commonplace in many cultures, alcohol withdrawal is one of the most dangerous kinds of withdrawal if the dependence is severe.
A Closer Look at Alcohol Withdrawal
When alcohol crosses the blood-brain barrier, it produces increased amounts of both dopamine and GABA. These are chemicals that the brain uses to tell the body how to feel and react to stimuli. Dopamine increases feelings of pleasure and reward, motivation, and many other vital, life-sustaining functions. Meanwhile, GABA controls and regulates stress reactions. As GABA levels rise, the central nervous system (CNS) becomes depressed, and respiration, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure are all reduced.
Over time, alcohol abuse interferes dramatically with natural levels of these essential chemicals. The more the brain adapts to this abnormal intrusion, the more it will become reliant on alcohol to keep chemical levels in balance. Once an individual becomes dependent on alcohol, dopamine and GABA activity are consistently altered, resulting in unwanted and possibly dangerous complications when they attempt to discontinue use abruptly.
Moreover, a person who has an alcohol addiction should never quit drinking cold turkey without medical intervention, support, 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.”
Risks of Alcohol Withdrawal
Most individuals who are dependent on alcohol will encounter withdrawal symptoms if they attempt to quit drinking cold turkey. Study findings are varied, but it has been suggested that at least 3% of those who use this method will suffer from a severe and life-threatening condition known as delirium tremens (DTs). This disorder is hallmarked by seizures, confusion, agitation, and hallucinations.
In addition to these, people may also suffer from perilously high fevers. Also, hyperthermia, heart arrhythmias, and other complications related to co-occurring medical conditions can prove deadly during DTs without immediate medical intervention.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually onset within around eight hours after the last drink and peak in about 2-3 days. In the case of DTs, characteristic symptoms may not become evident for up to 72 hours after a person quits drinking cold turkey. This fact makes the condition even more hazardous since the person may erroneously believe the problem has been resolved, and they do not require medical attention.
In general, the intensity of the effects of alcohol withdrawal is closely associated with the severity of the individual’s alcohol use and dependence. This fact implies that a person who drinks excessively on a regular basis for an extended period will likely suffer the most without professional help.
Combining other drugs, especially other CNS depressants, can elevate a person’s level of dependence and further amplify withdrawal symptoms. Likewise, the presence of co-existing mental health or medical conditions can exacerbate the risks and severity of withdrawal.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary in intensity from relatively mild to life-threatening and may include the following:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Accelerated heart rate
- Clammy skin
- Irritability or agitation
- Memory impairment
- Cognitive impairment
- Mood swings
Other Dangerous Side Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol dependence and episodes of heavy drinking can lead to malnourishment because those who suffer tend to eat fewer balanced meals. Also, alcohol withdrawal can induce stomach upset, acid reflux, and appetite loss. Alcohol abuse can also deplete the body of essential vitamins and nutrients.
For instance, alcohol abuse can lead to a deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine), and, in fact, as many as 80% of those who struggle with alcoholism suffer from this. A thiamine deficiency can result in the development of a condition known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE). WE is a disorder associated with profound mental confusion, as well as a loss of control over eye movement and motor coordination.
Much of the time, Wernicke’s encephalopathy progresses into another disorder known as Korsakoff syndrome. This condition is hallmarked by difficulty forming new memories, learning problems, and confusion.
Learning and memory deficiencies, in addition to impaired motor skills, make Korsakoff syndrome a debilitating disorder that requires highly-specialized treatment. In fact, it is estimated that only about one-fourth of those who develop the syndrome will recover fully from it.
Dehydration is another possible complication of alcohol withdrawal, and this can be related to a profound imbalance in electrolytes. Alcohol itself is dehydrating, and diarrhea and vomiting that frequently occur during withdrawal serve to make this issue even worse.
Severe dehydration can lead to mental confusion and a disturbance in the nervous system’s autonomic functions. This effect further increases the potential for a hazardous withdrawal period. High levels of depression, anxiety, and panic can also be challenging during alcohol withdrawal and may ultimately promote suicidal thoughts or self-harm.
Minimizing the Risks
Alcohol withdrawal can be severe and extremely uncomfortable. The adverse effects and intense cravings often make it challenging for people to avoid relapse unless they are cared for in a safe, alcohol-free environment and receive medical help.
Fortunately, the risks associated with alcohol withdrawal can be minimized using medical detox—therefore, this method is always recommended. Likewise, there are numerous benefits of quitting alcohol.
During a medical detox program, the individual will be supervised in a specialized facility where they can safely stop drinking while alcohol-related toxins are processed out of their system. Often, medications can be administered to help reduce many of the side effects related to withdrawal. Pharmaceuticals such as sleep aids, mood stabilizers, and upset stomach and anti-diarrheal remedies may be beneficial in helping to relieve specific symptoms of withdrawal.
During detox, intravenous fluids can also be administered to prevent or reverse dehydration. Nutritional balance can be reestablished using carefully planned meals. Medical providers will monitor vital signs and emotional health regularly to ensure each individual is as safe and comfortable as possible throughout the withdrawal and detox period. On average, a person should remain in a medical detox program for between 5-7 days.
Psychological support during detox can also help address the potential dangers related to alcohol withdrawal by promoting emotional stability. One of the primary objectives is to ensure the individual is prepared to enter a comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment program immediately following completion of the detox process.
Getting Help for Alcoholism
Detox is a critical first step, but it should be directly followed by participation in a comprehensive addiction treatment program that includes the following:
- Behavioral therapy
- Individual and family counseling
- Peer support groups
- Substance abuse education
- Health and wellness education
- Experiential activities
- Holistic activities
- Aftercare planning
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recover offer integrated, research-based approaches to addiction treatment in partial hospitalization and residential formats. We customize our programs to address the unique circumstances of those we treat to ensure that their needs and goals are met. We ensure that each person is provided with the tools and education they need to have the best chance for long-term success.
If you are motivated to break free from the chains of alcoholism, contact us today! We can help you reclaim your life and experience the happiness and wellness you deserve!