The severity of symptoms experienced during alcohol withdrawal varies from person to person. Your personal physical conditions and severity and history of alcohol use greatly affect how likely you are to experience severe withdrawal symptoms. Depending on these variables, it may or may not be safe for you to withdraw from alcohol on your own.
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is a severe case of withdrawal that usually happens in people who have been heavy drinkers for a significant period and have decided to suddenly stop or drastically reduce their alcohol intake. Because the brain and body become physically dependent on alcohol following sustained alcohol consumption, negative health consequences can happen when it is suddenly removed from your system.
Symptoms of AWS vary in severity from mild discomfort to emotional distress to life-threatening conditions. Symptoms of AWS include the following:
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- High fever
If you are anticipating alcohol withdrawal, either on your own or under medical supervision, you can expect to experience a handful of the above symptoms. Detoxing under medical supervision can help to ensure your safety and provide relief from some of these symptoms. If your situation is not that severe, you might be able to safely manage these symptoms on your own at home. Before you attempt to manage symptoms on your own, you should consult with a physician to confirm this is the appropriate step for you.
Alcohol Withdrawal Safety Concerns
Many safety concerns arise when people decide to wean themselves off alcohol. More severe withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures, high fever, and problems with regular heart functioning, require immediate medical attention as they can be life-threatening. When people attempt to withdraw from alcohol on their own, they may not be able to obtain medical care fast enough if an emergency arises.
True Blood actor Nelsan Ellis made headlines in 2017 for dying from alcohol withdrawal that he attempted to manage on his own. During the withdrawal process, he developed a blood infection, kidney failure, a swollen liver, extremely low blood pressure, and ultimately, heart failure. Heavy drinking damages heart health as well as liver function. When the balance of these systems is suddenly turned upside down by removing alcohol, the systems can shut down.
Quitting alcohol cold turkey is another option for detox that makes health care professionals very nervous. People sometimes attempt to quit cold turkey because they have an all-or-nothing mentality that makes them feel like they need to stop drinking completely all at once for their best chances of getting sober. This decision should not be made hastily, however, as dangerous physiological withdrawal symptoms can occur.
When people decide to quit cold turkey, the body’s functions go into a state of hyperexcitability. As soon as alcohol is removed from the body, the central nervous system works hard to adapt to the absence of alcohol. If alcohol is removed all at once, it can be too much for the central nervous system to adjust to suddenly.
Why are the Withdrawal Symptoms of Alcohol Dangerous?
Alcohol is in a class of drugs called central nervous system depressants, which work to slow down the activity in your brain and body. After a period of regular excessive drinking, your nervous system will get used to the drug’s depressing effects. You may feel yourself become tolerant to alcohol, with the ability to drink more before you feel its effects. Your brain chemistry is adapting to the presence of alcohol and adjusting your natural chemicals around it. When you stop drinking, you’ll experience the uncomfortable symptoms of chemical imbalance. So far, this is true of any drug that can cause chemical dependence. What sets alcohol apart as a depressant is how your nervous system reacts to the imbalance. As you become dependent, your brain chemistry will start producing more excitatory chemicals to counteract the alcohol. When you stop drinking, these chemicals will cause your nervous system to become overactive.
The over-excitement in your nervous system that’s caused by alcohol withdrawal can cause uncomfortable symptoms like shaky hands, anxiety, dizziness, changes in vision, and insomnia. However, it can also cause seizures and a condition called delirium tremens. Seizures can happen suddenly at any point during the withdrawal process, even after your symptoms seem to have peaked and started to go away. Seizures can be severe, causing you to pass out and experience convulsions. In some cases, seizures cause injuries that can be life-threatening, especially when you go through them alone.
Delirium tremens is a set of symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal and other central nervous system depressants. It involves sudden and extreme confusion, panic, sweating, shaking, convulsions, agitation, irritability, seizures, heart arrhythmia, chest pains, and other symptoms. In some cases, delirium tremens cause fatal complications like heart attacks or strokes.
The life-threatening symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be avoided or addressed with the help of a doctor, in addiction treatment, or medical detox.
Alcohol withdrawal can be more dangerous if you’ve gone through withdrawal from a central nervous system depressant before.
Tapering Off Alcohol
Tapering, or weaning, off alcohol is one method used to help the central nervous system slowly adjust to alcohol leaving the body. It is considered a safer method of stopping alcohol use than quitting cold turkey. The risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms is still present, but the chance of experiencing the more severe and life-threatening symptoms goes down.
There is a lack of scientific research on the effectiveness of using the tapering method to treat alcohol addiction. It has been shown to be effective in helping people safely reduce their intake of other drugs, however, such as prescription medications. For this reason, people are hopeful that there are safe and effective applications of the tapering method to reduce alcohol intake.
It is important to note that the tapering method is not effective for everyone. It requires an incredibly high level of self-regulation that can be too much to ask of people who have a serious alcohol use disorder. People may also be so sensitive to alcohol withdrawal that merely reducing the number of drinks they have each day already creates challenging withdrawal symptoms. If either of these situations is the case for you, the safest and most effective withdrawal method is to seek medical assistance in a formal rehab or health care facility.
Do I Need To Taper Off of Alcohol?
Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous, but how do you know if you actually need to taper? There are a few common signs that can point to potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. If you’ve developed a chemical dependence on alcohol, you should speak to a doctor before attempting to quit on your own. Dependence can develop after consistent heavy alcohol use for several weeks, months, or years. If you’ve started to feel a growing tolerance to alcohol, you may have become chemically dependent. Discomfort, when you try to cut back or quit, is another sign of dependence and potential withdrawal. Restlessness, nervousness, and shaky hands are some common early withdrawal symptoms. Another sign of a growing alcohol problem is the need to drink just to feel normal, not as a form of recreation or social activity. If you start to feel uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms first thing in the morning, you may be dependent on alcohol.
If you experience any of these signs or symptoms, you should seek medical help before attempting to quit.
How Can You Stop Alcohol Use Safely?
The first step in addressing an alcohol use disorder is to seek medical help. It can be difficult to assess your level of alcohol dependence and whether or not you’re going to experience dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Speaking to a doctor or medical professional is a good first step. You should always seek medical advice before quitting alcohol after heavy use.
Your options for quitting alcohol use include medical detox and tapering. If you only have a mild dependence on alcohol, you may be able to speak to a doctor about tapering at home. Your doctor may be able to prescribe benzodiazepines, which can help prevent alcohol withdrawal. Then you can take smaller and smaller doses with your doctor’s guidance. If you have a severe dependence on alcohol or a severe substance use disorder, you may need to go through medical detox, which involves around a week of medically managed treatment.
How To Taper
The best way to safely wean yourself from alcohol is to establish a plan. Making a plan ensures that your intentions are well thought out and can serve as a point of reference throughout the process.
The HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol method provides an outline for reducing your alcohol intake that many people have found success with. Below is a set of guidelines that can be used to make your own tapering plan. Remember, every taper plan is unique to one’s own set of personal circumstances regarding alcohol consumption.
- Step 1: Identify your baseline of alcohol consumption. Your baseline refers to how much alcohol you consume each day. Recognizing this number is important to establishing and maintaining a safe taper schedule. It gives you a starting point from which to reduce your daily alcohol intake.
- Step 2: Create a tapering schedule. The length of your tapering schedule depends on how much you have been drinking and for how long. In general, HAMS recommends reducing the amount you drink by two drinks per day. If you have not been drinking very much per day, your taper schedule will be relatively short. If you have been consuming a significant amount of alcohol each day, however, you will need a longer tapering schedule. Some people attempt to reduce their intake by half each day, but this can be too quick and cause withdrawal symptoms in some people.
- Step 3: Track your symptoms. This includes monitoring withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, your pulse, and changes in blood pressure. If you begin to encounter bad withdrawal symptoms, you may be tapering too quickly. Pay attention to these systems and adjust your tapering schedule accordingly.
- Step 4: Use complementary medications if necessary. If you are struggling with difficult withdrawal symptoms despite tapering cautiously, you can speak with your doctor about possible medications they can prescribe to assist you through the withdrawal process. Benzodiazepines, as well as medications specifically approved for the treatment of alcohol addiction by the FDA, are available.
- Step 5: Stick to your plan. To safely taper, it must happen during a certain period. Stick to your tapering schedule, and day by day, you will get closer to being free from alcohol.
- Step 6: Reinforce your sobriety. Whether you are tapering off alcohol to stay sober for the long-term or just to reset your system, make a conscious effort to reinforce the sobriety you just achieved. Joining community support groups, such as Alcoholic Anonymous, is a great way to do this.
When you taper correctly, you are less likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms. The chance of experiencing withdrawal symptoms, however, never disappears completely.
If you notice yourself developing concerning withdrawal symptoms, seek medical attention right away. Tapering can be done safely and successfully, but even under the best circumstances, the risks of experiencing complications are still present.
Alternative Withdrawal Options
If you know you want to quit using alcohol, but the tapering method does not sound right for you, there are alternative withdrawal options. The safest option for alcohol withdrawal is to participate in an inpatient or outpatient treatment program. Outpatient treatment programs may be appropriate for people who have mild-to-moderate withdrawal symptoms and a supportive home environment in which to return.
An inpatient program may be more appropriate if you are experiencing moderate-to-severe withdrawal symptoms that require a higher level of medical attention. Inpatient programs provide 24/7 monitoring of your symptoms and can respond immediately if any complications arise.
Both types of treatment programs, however, typically offer medically assisted detox or medication-assisted treatment. Through these two forms of treatment, medications are used to manage withdrawal symptoms, so they are less severe, less uncomfortable, and less dangerous to the individual who is detoxing from alcohol. As a result, individuals are more likely to complete the withdrawal process, engage in therapy following treatment, and maintain a life of sobriety once the treatment program comes to an end.
If you are considering tapering off alcohol to try and avoid dangerous withdrawal symptoms, it is possible to it safely. Be sure to create a clear tapering schedule with a plan for how to handle medical complications if they arise. Ultimately, medical supervision is required for alcohol withdrawal, so consult with a physician before attempting any form of detox.