Despite being considered one of the most dangerous drugs in existence, alcohol is widely available for use around the globe. From the uplifting commercials showing happy people drinking to television shows and movies that portray actors heading straight for the bottle in a time of need, you’d never believe that alcohol was deadly. Unfortunately, while alcohol use itself can lead to a life of misery, it’s not the only part of it you need to worry about.
The prevalence of alcohol use across the globe shouldn’t be understated. The legality of the substance causes more of a threat because it’s accessible by children or addicts. Imagine having a substance use disorder and in recovery. Any time you head to the grocery store, you’re bombarded with alcohol advertisements on signs, commercials on the radio, and then the dreaded alcohol aisle. It’s a never-ending battle.
For young adults and teens, all they have to do is crack into their parents’ liquor cabinet and grab alcohol to experiment with or have an older friend run down to the store to pick up some beer, which is where it could start. Maybe it was a glass of wine that gave you a buzz at dinner, but then you start growing dependent on its effects to get you through social gatherings. The more you drink, the more tolerant you become, causing you to drink more and more to achieve the desired effects.
Once your tolerance to alcohol skyrockets, you’re going to be at a point where you start feeling sick without it. When you’re chemically dependent on alcohol, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms when its presence disappears. Again, for alcoholics, it’s a car ride to the liquor store to get their fix legally. However, if you’re unable to or run out of money, the withdrawal symptoms could end up becoming dangerous.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a global phenomenon. It’s a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use, no matter the occupational, social, or health consequences. The condition is often referred to as alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse, or alcohol addiction. Cases can range from mild, moderate, or severe. Alcohol abuse causes lasting changes in our brain, causing a person to be vulnerable to relapse.
A 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 85.6 percent of people over the age of 18 admitted to drinking alcohol at one point in their lives, while another 69.5 percent had consumed it in the previous year. In addition to these figures, 54.9 percent reported drinking in the past month. While the occasional drink may not lead to something severe like alcohol withdrawal, those who engaged in binge drinking and heavy alcohol usage were at a much greater risk.
An estimated 25.8 percent of people 18 and older reported binge drinking in the previous month from that same study. Even worse, another 6.3 percent said they engaged in heavy alcohol usage in the preceding month. An even more disturbing and emerging trend, known as high-intensity drinking, has been sweeping the nation. It’s defined as drinking alcohol at levels that are two or more times the gender-specific binge drinking thresholds. Those who did this were 70 times more likely to have an alcohol-related emergency visit.
The end result of prolonged drinking can be devastating and end in a fatality. Those who drink enough to become dependent are at a severe risk of developing alcohol withdrawals, which can be deadly if not treated. If you’ve developed an alcohol use disorder and you’re ready to stop, you must seek help to avoid dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Below we’ll take a look at alcohol withdrawal, what it is, and how you can overcome it safely.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol addiction can ruin your life, yet many continue abusing the drug despite the adverse consequences, mostly to escape alcohol withdrawal. Detox and withdrawal are infamous for being both psychologically and physically draining. If you partake in this quest without medical oversight, your alcohol withdrawal can cause a fatality. However, during this time of focusing on yourself, you’ll be taking the necessary steps to get your life on track.
Now that we’ve made it clear alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, what is it exactly? Alcohol withdrawal is considered a set of dangerous and distressing symptoms that are caused by the brain lacking alcohol in the system. When your body becomes dependent on a substance in the body, it can’t function without it, and withdrawal is the result of this, leading to symptoms that last anywhere from four to five days or more.
As mentioned above, alcohol withdrawal is caused by our body’s physical dependence on the substance. When you become alcohol dependent, both your body and mind need the drug to function regularly. Your body will go into withdrawal a few hours after alcohol leaves its system. Withdrawal symptoms occur during the detox phase, which is a natural, albeit painful, process when the body focuses on removing toxins from its system to reach homeostasis.
Withdrawal is a process that challenges you physically, psychologically, and emotionally. It’s considered one of the most uncomfortable experiences, especially when you attempt to forego it alone. With that said, drinkers will continue consuming alcohol despite adverse consequences like losing a marriage, job, or the prospect of jail just to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal happens because of prolonged and excessive alcohol use. Continuing to drink affects the brain’s natural functions and disrupts neurotransmitters responsible for sending messages to the central nervous system (CNS).
The main neurotransmitter responsible for relaxation is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which also helps produce endorphins in our brain to produce a sense of well-being. Prolonged and excessive alcohol consumption will cause a GABA imbalance that our brains become accustomed to functioning properly. When alcohol use ceases, the chemical balance in our brain is disrupted, resulting in adverse mental and physical symptoms of withdrawal.
Alcohol abuse can also lead to problems with dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to the reward system in our brain. Dopamine is responsible for regulating enjoyment, energy, and motivation. It also assists with our sense of attention, cognition, mood, and motor coordination. When ingested, alcohol releases vast amounts of dopamine through our brain. As your body becomes more tolerant of alcohol, the brain will become dependent on the feel-good neurotransmitters. When long-term drinkers abruptly stop drinking, the production of dopamine also ceases, leading to psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms.
What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?
As was described above, alcohol withdrawal can lead to various uncomfortable medical and mental symptoms. While the effects are predictable, the process of withdrawal is unpredictable because each person will experience different ranges of intensity and symptom types. Since alcohol withdrawal can be fatal, even for those who don’t drink that heavily, it’s advised to seek professional medical help from a detox center to overcome this potentially dangerous process.
If you or a loved one is facing the hurdle of alcohol withdrawal, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the symptoms you’ll likely face. Similar to other drugs of abuse, alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur in a way that’s opposite of its intoxicating effects. When intoxicated, alcohol will make a person feel relaxed, calm, and at peace. However, alcohol withdrawal symptoms will cause the complete opposite, including the following:
- Profuse sweating
- Poor appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Higher heart rate, in some cases over 100 beats per minute
- Inability to sleep due to intense dreams and nightmares
- Poor decision-making and memory
- Extremely sensitive to light, touch, or sounds
From the mental health perspective, someone facing alcohol withdrawal will experience a dramatic spike in their anxiety. Due to the change in GABA activity in the brain, anxiety and excitation will build. The same occurs with agitation and irritability, which could result in violent or aggressive behavior.
Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Due to the ability to impact your physical and psychological health, alcohol withdrawal symptoms are disturbing. However, severe withdrawal symptoms can put you in imminent danger without help. Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms include the following:
Hallucinations which is when someone hears, sees, feels, tastes, or smells something that isn’t there.
- Delusional thinking, which is when someone believes something despite evidence proving otherwise.
- Seizures, which are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
Delirium Tremens (DTs)
Delirium tremens, also known as the DTs, are the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms can show up anywhere from two to five days after quitting alcohol and will last two to three days. The experience of going through this condition will vary from one person to another and will be dependent upon the duration and frequency in which they engaged in alcohol consumption.
Only an estimated five percent of those who experience alcohol withdrawal will encounter delirium tremens. Heavy, long-term alcohol users are more prone to developing the condition during withdrawal. It’s a serious and potentially fatal condition caused by alcohol consumption.
It’s caused by abrupt alcohol cessation or reduced intake. Delirium tremens only affect those who drink heavily. Heavy drinking is defined as 15 or more drinks a week for men or eight or more drinks a week for women. It typically occurs after a period of binge drinking or heavy drinking. Symptoms include the following:
- Deep sleep
- Chest pain
- Increased heart rate
- Stomach pain
- Involuntary muscle movements or contractions
- Rapid mood changes
Even when a person feels they could be in the clear after alcohol detox, delirium tremens take around 48 to 96 hours to show up, meaning you can feel fine and still develop the deadly condition. In some cases, it could show up seven to 10 days after you stop drinking. For this reason, you must enter medical detox and explain to the intake coordinators how much alcohol you consume so they know the severity of your condition.
You’re more at risk of developing delirium tremens if you have any of the following:
- Co-occurring mental health condition
- Are middle-aged or elderly
- Experienced seizures during previous alcohol withdrawals
- Have abnormal liver function
- Have experienced delirium tremens before
- Experience intense alcohol cravings
- Consume alcohol for an extended period
- Consume large amounts of alcohol on a daily basis, which increases your risks dramatically
- Detoxing from other substances in conjunction with alcohol withdrawal
Acute alcohol withdrawal is seldom deadly, while alcohol withdrawal delirium can be lethal. However, if you forgo this process under the care of medical professionals in a detox facility, your chances of experiencing a safe alcohol withdrawal are much better. Delirium tremens commonly require advanced pharmacotherapy, and in severe cases, could require a stay in the intensive care unit (ICU).
Alcohol Withdrawal Severity Factors
There are several variables that determine how alcohol withdrawal will affect you. It’s nearly impossible to predict these symptoms from one person to another, but addiction experts will thoroughly assess factors to gain insights on what you can expect.
The following are some factors that will influence the severity of alcohol withdrawals and if they could potentially become deadly.
- How often you drink
- The quantity of alcohol consumed
- How long you’ve been abusing alcohol
- Family addiction history
- Your history of addiction to other substances
- Pre-existing mental and physical health conditions
For example, if you’re over the age of 30, have anxiety, and have been drinking for a prolonged period, you’ll be at a much greater risk of developing severe withdrawal symptoms than someone under the age of 30 without any co-occurring mental health conditions who drink less. In most cases, previous withdrawal experience is the best indicator of how future withdrawal will affect you. The individual, as well as the professional, should assess detox history.
Those who consume alcohol heavily commonly report withdrawal symptoms more often than those who don’t drink heavily. Heavy alcohol consumption nearly doubles the risk of hallucinations during withdrawal.
How Death Can Occur During Withdrawal
If you’ve gone through the process or spoken to a former alcoholic, they likely told you the process made them feel as though they were dying. Alcohol withdrawal itself isn’t the cause of death, but rather the potential to develop grand mal seizures or delirium tremens. It’s an unfortunate reality, which is why seeking help is your number one option.
Why Alcohol Withdrawal Occurs
As you’ll find with any addiction, prolonged and repeated use of alcohol leads to chemical changes in the brain. Once you become chemically dependent on the substance, life becomes impossible to function without it. For alcoholics, using alcohol is as vital as the air they breathe to survive. When you abruptly remove that from your body, it begins to panic and become confused, leading to symptoms that can be mild or potentially fatal.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
Although alcohol detox takes anywhere from seven to ten days, alcohol withdrawal is different for each person who goes through it, meaning it could last even longer for heavy users. In some cases, it could last months for the protracted withdrawal symptoms to reduce in severity. For this reason, trusting your health to a professional addiction specialist is crucial to overcoming this potentially fatal disease.
Alcohol withdrawal will present itself in four stages – minor, major, withdrawal seizures, and delirium tremens. It’s vital to note that not everyone will experience all phases of withdrawal. If you’ve gone through alcohol withdrawal before, it can paint a picture of what to expect moving forward.
Stage One: Minor Withdrawal
Minor withdrawal symptoms are likely to occur anywhere from six to 24 hours after your last drink. While it’s uncomfortable, it’s not dangerous for the individual at hand. The most common symptoms you’re likely to face include the following:
- Higher anxiety and stress
- Tremors/shaky hands
Stage Two: Major Withdrawal
Major withdrawal is much more significant and is likely to occur anywhere between ten and 72 hours after your last drink. These physical and mental symptoms can be severe and are clear signs of moving on from normal functioning and include:
- Auditory hallucinations – hearing things that don’t exist.
- Visual hallucinations – seeing things that don’t exist
- High blood pressure
- Intense sweating
- Tremors that affect the entire body
Stage Three: Withdrawal Seizures
Withdrawal seizures, often referred to as “rum fits,” can appear anywhere from six to 48 hours after your last drink. Once you reach this level of alcohol withdrawal, it’ll be marked by seizures, even for those without a history of them. These seizures tend to be brief. For others, withdrawal seizures might be the only symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and could reoccur over a period of six hours.
Stage Four: Delirium Tremens
As was mentioned above, delirium tremens can appear roughly 48 to 96 hours after your last drink. If you’re at an elevated risk of developing the condition, we can’t stress enough the benefits of professional care. This can be deadly, and not being under the supervision of addiction specialists could cost you your life.
Can You Prevent Alcohol Withdrawal?
If you’ve become dependent on alcohol or developed an alcohol use disorder, you’re bound to face some form of withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of drinking. If you misuse the substance but aren’t dependent on it, you should seriously consider using alcohol in moderation and set goals to stop completely. Below we’ll provide some tips on how you can accomplish this goal and achieve sobriety from this dangerous drug.
- Set personal goals: These don’t have to be elaborate but setting a limit on how much you’ll drink each week can help you stay accountable.
- Keep a record of how much you drink: Try to keep track of the number of drinks you have each day and each week. By seeing how much you’re drinking, you can be conscious of your intake and reduce it.
- Measure how much you drink: By measuring how much you drink, you can keep track of the precise amount of alcohol entering into your system. You can do this by measuring it with a cup.
- Change your routine: If your activities revolve around drinking, it might be time to consider more wholesome events that don’t involve social drinking.
- Ask for help: If you feel that your drinking has spiraled out of control because you’ve failed to cut back, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Friends and family members are more than willing to assist you in getting the help you need.
Supportive care and medicine can help with alcohol withdrawal. Experts recommend that people going through this process be monitored by professionals. If you or a loved one is misusing or abusing alcohol, speak with a healthcare provider first. They’re more than willing to help you or your loved one effectively manage their withdrawals.