Many people addicted to alcohol believe that it would be safe for them to stop drinking “cold turkey” on their own if they wanted to.
However, nothing is further from the truth.
For someone with a severe physical dependence, stopping alcohol suddenly can have dire consequences.
Alcohol Withdrawal and the Human Brain
When a person is addicted to alcohol, the chemistry of their brain changes. This causes the natural flow of their brain’s neurotransmitters, called GABA receptors, to become altered. Since alcohol is a depressant, it lowers or slows down the normal functioning of the central nervous system. If the person were to suddenly stop drinking alcohol without the proper withdrawal medication and professional supervision, the effect on their brain’s chemistry could result in withdrawal symptoms that could be deadly.
The Three Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal
According to an article in The American Family Physician, when a person goes through withdrawal from alcohol they can go through as many as three stages.
- During the first or mild stage, the person generally experiences heart palpitations, tremors, headache, nausea, insomnia, anxiety, severe abdominal pain, and gastrointestinal problems. These symptoms begin anywhere from six to 24 hours after consuming the last drink.
- The moderate or second stage begins approximately 24 to 72 hours after taking the last drink. During this time, the person begins breathing rapidly and sweating profusely. Their body temperature rises, their blood pressure goes higher, and their heart rate increases. They also become confused, agitated, and irritated.
- The severe stage of alcohol withdrawal, stage three, is known as delirium tremens. This stage is commonly referred to as the DTs. It generally begins two to four days after taking the last drink. During this time, the person becomes extremely agitated and disoriented. They experience auditory and/or visual hallucinations, their fever becomes higher, and delirium and seizures can occur. It is during this stage that convulsions, coma, and death can occur.
Statistically, only about 5 percent of individuals addicted to alcohol experience the delirium tremens stage. However, it’s impossible to predict how severe this stage will be since you need to consider variables such as:
- The length of time the person has been drinking
- The amount consumed each day
- Whether there are any co-occurring mental health disorders
- Whether the person is using any drugs with the alcohol
- History of addiction in the family
- Medical history
If an individual is not being closely monitored by professionals, a wide range of complications can occur. Consider the following:
- An alcoholic going through the DTs is more susceptible to having a heart attack, stroke, or grand mal seizure.
- Heart arrhythmias and other cardiac complications caused by low electrolyte levels can cause sudden death from a heart attack.
- Dysfunction of the liver or kidneys can occur—which can potentially be fatal.
- During a seizure, the person could aspirate food—which can cause choking and possible death.
- Low phosphate levels can cause weakness of the muscles, coma, and the reduction or total stoppage of pulmonary functions.
More About the DTs
A person that is heavily dependent on alcohol is more likely to experience severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. For instance, if someone has been drinking a large amount of alcohol every day for an extended period of time, they have a higher risk of getting the DTs.
Examples of this would include drinking the following amounts each day for a long amount of time:
- Beer: seven pints
- Hard alcohol: one half-liter
- Wine: two bottles
In addition to heavy drinkers, people who have been addicted to alcohol for more than 10 years or have a history of alcohol withdrawal also run a greater risk of getting the DTs. However, it is important to know that a person can also get the DTs if they drink less over a longer time period.
DTs and the Death Rate
Several studies have looked at the rate of deaths related to alcohol withdrawal.
- According to an article in USA Today, the death rate of people who experience DTs from alcohol withdrawal is estimated to be as high as 1 in 25, or 4 percent.
- A study conducted in Spain has estimated deaths related to alcohol withdrawal to be as high as 6.6 percent, or 1 in 15.
- In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that 831 deaths in the United States were related to alcohol withdrawal.
Get the Help You Need
If you or a loved one has an addiction to alcohol, never try to detox alone. Get the help you need to go through alcohol withdrawal safely. At Canyon Vista Recovery Center in Mesa, Arizona, you will find a professional staff to guide you through the process of a safe withdrawal. Once detox is completed, they will provide you with the tools you need to live a healthy sober life.
Learn more about programs offered at Canyon Vista Recovery Center, alcohol rehab near Gilbert.
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- Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal – Pathophysiological Insights
- Oxford Academic: Alcohol and Alcoholism – Analysis of Factors Determining Survival of Alcoholic Withdrawal Syndrome Patients in a General Hospital
- USA Today – Quitting Alcohol Can Be Deadly: Hundreds in the US Die Each Year
- American Family Physician – Outpatient Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome