Alcohol dependence occurs in one out of every 12 adults in America. As the most-used addictive substance in the United States, a dependence on alcohol can be very dangerous and affect a wide range of people. When someone is unable to control their drinking habits, they develop an alcohol use disorder.
As alcohol abuse progresses and a tolerance is built up, it takes larger quantities of alcohol to achieve a similar effect. Alcohol dependence occurs when someone experiences cravings for alcohol or withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. While alcohol detox is a necessary part of the recovery process for alcohol use disorders, alcohol withdrawal can be very dangerous.
People attempting to detox from alcohol should not go through the process alone. Medical supervision can help protect patients as they experience withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening if handled without proper treatment. Keep reading to learn the top five reasons why alcohol withdrawal is dangerous.
1. Dangerous Side Effects
Out of all people who are dependent on alcohol, about half will experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can start within hours of the last drink and last for days or weeks. The stages of alcohol withdrawal will differ for everyone, and the severity of symptoms depends on a variety of factors. The amount of alcohol consumed and the length of alcohol abuse can contribute to alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
The central nervous system adjusts to the depressive effect of alcohol over time. Heavy drinking can slow down the function of your brain, making your body work harder to keep your brain alert. When someone makes the decision to suddenly stop drinking, the brain is left in a more alert state as alcohol levels drop.
Symptoms and side effects of alcohol withdrawal can range from mild to severe. People may begin noticing symptoms within six hours after the last drink. On average, withdrawal symptoms can last for about a week. For people with more severe or prolonged alcohol use disorders, withdrawal symptoms can last for multiple weeks.
Side effects of alcohol detox can impact the body and mind, causing mild to extreme discomfort throughout the process. Potential side effects of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Nausea and dizziness
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Muscle weakness
- Clammy or sweaty skin
- Aggression or hostility
- Depression and anxiety
- Short-term memory loss
- Mood swings
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid heart rate
- Cognitive difficulties
2. Delirium Tremens
Alcohol detox can also bring about more serious effects, including delirium tremens. Delirium tremens are life-threatening symptoms more commonly associated with long-term alcohol use disorders, such as people who have had an alcohol addiction for more than 10 years. These symptoms can begin 48 hours after the last drink and last for multiple days. Of those going through alcohol withdrawal, about one in every 20 people exhibit delirium tremens symptoms.
Some people are at a higher risk for delirium tremens than others, though everyone experiences alcohol withdrawal differently. Delirium tremens symptoms are more common among those who have a history of alcohol withdrawal, heavy drinkers, and people who have dealt with alcohol addiction for several years.
Symptoms of delirium tremens include:
- Sensitivity to light
- Dangerously high fevers
- Cardiac arrhythmias
Delirium tremens, especially when combined with other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and preexisting health conditions, can be fatal. If someone decides to suddenly stop drinking alcohol, they need to go through the detox process under medical supervision. Recovering from severe alcohol dependence requires 24-hour care and monitoring during detox. Doctors and nurses can spot the symptoms of delirium tremens and take appropriate action to prevent trauma and permanent damage.
Alcohol detox can cause severe dehydration. Alcohol alone can dehydrate the body, but the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal make it even worse. Nausea and diarrhea are common withdrawal symptoms that may cause someone to lose their appetite, refuse to drink liquids, or become dehydrated. Delirium tremens can cause an increase in heartrate or blood pressure, which also leads to dehydration.
Dehydration is dangerous for the body and mind. As your body flushes out the toxins from alcohol during the detox process, it is important to maintain an electrolyte balance by staying hydrated. Dehydration can cause dizziness, rapid heartbeat, fatigue or fainting, and rapid breathing. The mind is also impacted as dehydration can cause confusion, irritability, and sleepiness. The symptoms of withdrawal only make the effects of dehydration on the body worse throughout the process.
Alcohol rehabilitation or treatment programs are designed to take care of the mind and body during detox. Medical staff can help ensure a person is properly hydrated throughout alcohol detox. Detoxing at home is considered dangerous because people are often unaware of the effects of withdrawal. It may also be difficult for someone to realize that they are dehydrated due to the discomfort of withdrawal.
4. Vitamin Depletion
Withdrawal can also lead to a severe decrease in essential vitamins and nutrients. Malnourishment is possible when someone goes through alcohol detox because they can lose their appetite. Appetite loss, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are all possible withdrawal symptoms. Throughout the alcohol detox process, a person may avoid eating. They may also reach for comfort food over balanced meals. A lack of proper nutrition can worsen the symptoms of withdrawal and make it more difficult for a person recovering from alcohol abuse.
Alcohol itself can also cause vitamin deficiencies. Of people battling alcohol abuse or addiction, about 80% report a deficiency of thiamine, or vitamin B1. Serious disorders can occur due to a thiamine deficiency, such as Wernicke’s encephalopathy. This disorder can cause mental confusion, lack of control over eye movement, and impaired coordination. Wernicke’s encephalopathy can also develop into Korsakoff syndrome, which causes difficulties with memory, learning, and mental confusion.
At alcohol treatment centers, doctors are able to provide the correct vitamins and nutrients to make up for any deficiencies caused by alcohol. Medical staff can conduct the necessary tests to check vitamin levels and provide the right vitamins at the right time each day. Those recovering from alcohol withdrawal do not have to take this responsibility on themselves if they choose to detox at a medical facility. Also, treatment programs include regular meals that are balanced and healthy. Patients receive the nutrients and fuel they need to make it through the detox and recovery process.
Getting sober is an important step for a person’s health and wellbeing. However, if the process is not handled safely, it can lead to death. Delirium tremens and fatal seizures are possible during withdrawal. The effects of alcohol withdrawal are potentially fatal, so alcohol detox should be done in a safe and medically-supervised environment.
There is no way to know how someone’s body will react to alcohol withdrawal until they begin the process. While mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms may only require outpatient care, serious symptoms need 24-hour care and monitoring.
With supervised alcohol withdrawal, medical staff can assess your condition and determine the proper method of detox. Doctors and nurses can inform you on the potential symptoms of withdrawal and offer help and support to mitigate any discomfort. For people who require inpatient treatment, medical staff can monitor their condition and take appropriate actions if issues arise.
Minimize the Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal
Seeking help as early as possible is important for minimizing the dangers of alcohol withdrawal. If someone is concerned about their alcohol use and drinking habits, they should consult their doctor as soon as possible. Also, if someone with an alcohol use disorder wants to stop drinking, they should seek medical help before beginning the detox process.
Medical intervention can benefit both mild and severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Medication, counseling, and a safe environment can go a long way towards helping someone with an alcohol use disorder on the road to recovery. People who complete a detox program can also receive crucial tools and support after their treatment program to stay sober.