Can Alcohol Withdrawal Kill You?

It takes a long time and very heavy alcohol abuse before addiction can progress to the point that withdrawal is fatal. Most people must consume large amounts of alcohol nearly every day for weeks or even years before they could suffer from fatal withdrawal symptoms. This is why it is so rare, but it is possible to die from alcohol withdrawal and it still happens to some who try to detox without medical help every year. In fact, most believe that singer Amy Winehouse died while trying to detox at home without medical assistance.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can start as soon as two hours after the final drink and can last for weeks. Most often the symptoms start at about 8 hours, but on rare occasions, they can begin several days after a person stops drinking. The worst symptoms usually occur at 24 to 72 hours after withdrawal starts. The more a person drinks, the more they are likely to develop symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Some of these symptoms are:

  • Anxiety
  • Shakiness
  • Depression
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite

A person should call a doctor or 911 immediately if any of these symptoms occur:

  • Clammy skin
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Severe headache
  • Fever
  • Severe vomiting
  • Very pale skin
  • Rapid hear beat
  • Hallucinations
  • Heavy sweating
  • Severe confusion
  • Seizures

What Causes These Symptoms?

No one knows the exact physical cause of alcohol withdrawal but most research suggests that the brains of heavy users adapt to the presence of alcohol as a defense mechanism in order to reduce the risk of overdose. Current theory suggests that as the brain cells change, they can’t absorb a receptor called GABA as efficiently as before. If alcohol use stops suddenly, there aren’t enough GABA receptors left to calm the person down and heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and even temperature are all increased to the point that they become out of control. The brain basically becomes over-excited. If the withdrawal is very severe and not treated with the proper medications, the following can occur:

  • Cardiac arrest
  • Respiratory failure (inability to breathe)
  • Hear attack
  • Stroke
  • Severe vomiting leading to fatal dehydration
  • Possibly fatal seizures

Delirium Tremens
Delirium tremens, or the DTs, is the worst form of withdrawal from alcohol. It is rare, but if a person’s abuse has reached this stage, it is an extremely dangerous medical condition. Delirium tremens can result in death in up to 35% of patients if left untreated.

How a Qualified Medical Team Can Help

Thankfully, death from delirium tremens is very rare now because medical help is available. Special medications such as benzodiazepines and IV fluids keep the heart regular and prevent dehydration while the patient makes it through the worst of the symptoms. This treatment is very successful and much safer than attempting to suffer through withdrawals alone or with non-medical supervision. In fact, because the patient may become agitated, confused and hallucinate, those who are not medically trained could actually be hurt by the person who is going through withdrawal.

In That Case, Isn’t it Safer to Just Keep Drinking?

Absolutely not. Long-term drinking results in death from non-withdrawal causes thousands of times more often that from withdrawal. Alcohol abuse causes nervous system damage, heart damage, and liver damage among many other serious side effects. Alcohol is linked to over 75,000 deaths a year in America alone. Combined with the damage to family, personal and workplace relationships, anyone who drinks to excess is better off if they stop drinking rather than continue drinking in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

It is important to understand that alcohol withdrawal symptoms can also occur if a person is attempting to taper off or reduce their dose rather than quit cold turkey. Benzodiazepines are much better at preventing DTs than weaning off alcohol. Even if abuse doesn’t seem severe enough to warrant professional help, it’s best to seek medical assistance when stopping alcohol after a long period of abuse. The threshold for DTs is different for every person and waiting to seek help until the worst symptoms occur is very dangerous. More importantly, the chances of successfully remaining sober increase dramatically with the right support system for both physical and mental well-being.

If you or a loved one have ever answered yes to two or more of the following questions, don’t wait until it’s too late– seek help today.
CAGE QUESTIONNAIRE

  • Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
  • Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
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