Substance Use

Can You Die From Alcohol Withdrawal?

Zinnia Health

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Is Alcohol Withdrawal and Detox Dangerous?

Millions of Americans struggle with an alcohol abuse disorder. Alcohol abuse cost the US economy 249 billion dollars in the year 2010, and the human costs of alcohol abuse can be devastating. (1) Each year, 88,000 people die in the US from alcohol-related accidents, posing a significant strain on healthcare providers. Although alcohol abuse disorder is a devastating illness, there is help available. (2)

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol dependence and addiction, you might wonder if it’s safe to go through detoxification without help. (3)

You might also wonder if you’ll experience alcohol withdrawal and what that experience entails. Is it even safe to quit cold turkey? Can you successfully recover from alcohol addiction?

In this article, we’ll explore alcohol abuse and alcohol detox in-depth and their effects on the body before, during, and after withdrawal. We’ll also answer some of the many things you might wonder about the recovery from this particular substance abuse.

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What Is Alcohol Addiction (Alcohol Use Disorder)?

Many people in the US safely indulge in alcohol consumption and do not develop alcoholism or addiction to alcohol. Studies indicate that 86% of US adults have had an alcoholic beverage at some point.

But around 6% of all US adults will develop dependence and full-blown addiction to alcohol. In addition, more adult men than women struggle with alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

There is not one definitive trigger that turns someone from a casual drinker into an alcoholic. Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a complex disease. (3)

The following can all make someone vulnerable to developing AUD:

  • Genetics
  • Temperament
  • Outside influences
  • Medical conditions
  • Triggers 

AUD is a pattern of alcohol use where the individual has issues controlling the amount they drink. They are preoccupied with drinking and continue to use alcohol despite any negative consequences that heavy alcohol intake causes. (3)

People who have AUD will need to consume more significant amounts of alcohol to get the desired effect (tolerance). When they try to quit drinking altogether or limit their consumption, they will experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms vary from person to person. (3)

An AUD is suspected when the individual’s health and safety are put at risk because of heavy drinking or they experience other alcohol-related problems.

Binge drinking can be a symptom of AUD, but not all binge drinkers are dependent on alcohol. For men, binge drinking is when someone consumes five or more drinks within two hours. For women, it is four drinks within two hours. (3)

What Is Alcohol Overdose, and Why Are People Who Abuse Alcohol at Risk?

Drinking too much or drinking too fast impairs your decision-making skills. In addition, people who drink a lot often have accidents and suffer from injuries due to poor motor coordination.

Some people continue to drink despite these signs, putting themselves at risk for alcohol overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol poisoning occurs when there is too much alcohol in your bloodstream. This affects vital organs such as your heart and lungs. (4

Symptoms of alcohol overdose include: (5)

  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Panting
  • Seizure
  • Low body temperature
  • Dulled gag reflex

This is a life-threatening condition that, if not treated immediately, could lead to permanent brain damage or death.

Abusing prescription medication or mixing medication with alcohol can increase your risk of alcohol overdose. (5

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, these drugs include zolpidem, oxycodone, benzodiazepines, and illicit opioids. Alcohol detox programs also treat drug addiction programs for individuals who suffer from both addictions. (6)

Are You at Risk of Alcohol Overdose?

Understanding the risk factors of alcohol overdose is essential for individuals who consume alcoholic beverages. Alcohol overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning, occurs when there is an excessive amount of alcohol in the bloodstream, leading to dangerous and potentially life-threatening effects.

Key risk factors include:

  • The amount and rate of alcohol consumption
  • Individual tolerance
  • Body weight
  • Age
  • The presence of underlying health conditions (7)

Binge drinking, which involves consuming large quantities of alcohol in a short period, significantly increases the risk.

Signs of alcohol overdose include:

  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Unconsciousness

If these symptoms are observed, seeking immediate medical attention is essential, as alcohol overdose can be a medical emergency requiring prompt intervention to prevent severe consequences. Awareness of individual risk factors and practicing responsible drinking behaviors are vital elements in preventing alcohol overdose and promoting overall well-being.

Alcohol Withdrawal Without Alcohol Detox

When a person tries to stop drinking on their own, they experience painful, severe withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can be physical or mental. In many cases, an individual will experience all three. (8)

The withdrawal process can also vary significantly from one individual to the next. Like the ones following, other factors influence the intensity and duration of alcohol abuse withdrawal symptoms. (8)

  1. The length of time a person has struggled with alcohol addiction.
  2. If they abused other substances alongside alcohol, i.e., drugs and alcohol.
  3. How much alcohol does the person consume during their addiction?
  4. If they suffer from any comorbid or mental health issues. (Mental health issues can exacerbate alcohol abuse. They can also arise from alcohol abuse.)

When you drink, your liver releases an enzyme to help your body get rid of the alcohol. Alcohol that isn’t broken down and secreted is absorbed into other parts of the body, such as the brain.

Alcohol suppresses neurotransmitters in the brain that cause the individual to feel at ease and relaxed while intoxicated. Once the alcohol wears off, the neurotransmitters are no longer dull. As a result, withdrawal symptoms occur.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Withdrawal symptoms can start in as little as two hours after quitting. Within 27 to 48 hours, the symptoms will peak. In some cases, severe, post-withdrawal symptoms can linger. Signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome occur primarily in the central nervous system. 

Depression, anxiety, and occasional cravings are common post-withdrawal symptoms. Heavy, long-term drinkers are at high risk of developing life-threatening complications.

The most common symptoms of withdrawal include the following:

  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Shaking and hand tremors
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Disorientation
  • Seizures
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure or hypertension
  • Hallucinations
  • High fever and excessive perspiration
  • Delirium Tremens (9)

Regardless of how long a person struggles with alcohol addiction, they will experience some symptoms. How severe these symptoms are or how many symptoms a person will experience varies.

A person who has abused alcohol for a long time or has abused alcohol with other substances will have potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

They are also more likely to experience long-lasting withdrawal symptoms.

Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal

The stages of alcohol withdrawal can be characterized by distinct sets of symptoms, reflecting the body’s response to the sudden cessation or reduction of alcohol intake.

Early Withdrawal (6-24 hours)

  • In the Early Withdrawal stage, occurring within the first 6-24 hours, individuals may experience heightened anxiety and restlessness. Difficulty in falling or staying asleep, known as insomnia, is a common occurrence during this initial period. Feelings of nausea and headaches may be encountered by some individuals.

Peak Withdrawal (24-72 hours)

  • Moving to the Peak Withdrawal stage, spanning from 24 to 72 hours, the body may respond with an elevated heart rate as a physiological reaction to alcohol cessation. Profuse sweating is a prevalent symptom during this peak withdrawal period. Shaking or tremors, particularly in the hands, may become noticeable, and, in some cases, individuals may experience auditory or visual hallucinations.

Late Withdrawal (72 hours and beyond)

  • In the Late Withdrawal stage, extending beyond 72 hours, severe cases may lead to the onset of Delirium Tremens (DTs), characterized by intense confusion, hallucinations, fever, and agitation. (9) Some individuals may be at risk of seizures during the late withdrawal phase, and the desire to consume alcohol may intensify, leading to intense cravings as individuals navigate the later stages of alcohol withdrawal. Recognizing these stages and associated symptoms is crucial for understanding the challenges individuals may face during alcohol withdrawal, emphasizing the importance of seeking appropriate medical supervision and support. 

It’s worth noting that not everyone experiences all stages, and the severity of symptoms can vary widely. Moreover, complications such as DTs and seizures are more likely in individuals with a history of heavy, prolonged alcohol use. (9

Seeking medical assistance and supervision is strongly recommended during alcohol withdrawal to manage symptoms, mitigate risks, and provide necessary support for a safer and more comfortable recovery process.

Is There a Risk of Death From Alcohol Withdrawal Without Alcohol Detox?

Unfortunately, yes. For some people with alcohol addiction, delirium tremens is a risk factor during withdrawal. Delirium tremens is a deadly seizure disorder that can happen to heavy drinkers who’ve struggled with AUD for ten or more years. (10

People who have experienced head injuries and illness during withdrawal are also at risk.

Usually, delirium tremens occur within the first several days after a person has had their last drink. However, it can happen as long as ten days after quitting. It is an unpredictable condition. (10)

This is why seeking help from an alcohol detox facility that offers careful medical supervision is so important. Medically trained staff are there in the case of an emergency and can quickly mobilize to reduce the risk of mortality.

Often, alcohol detox centers offer medication to patients going through alcohol detox. This medication reduces the severity of symptoms and reduces the risk of complications during alcohol detox.

Why Alcohol Withdrawal Occurs

Alcohol withdrawal occurs when an individual who regularly consumes large amounts of alcohol suddenly reduces or stops their alcohol intake. The human body adapts to the presence of alcohol, and when it is no longer supplied, the central nervous system becomes hyperactive, leading to withdrawal symptoms.  (11)

The severity of withdrawal can vary depending on factors such as the duration and amount of alcohol consumption, individual health, and any history of previous withdrawals.

Common symptoms include anxiety, tremors, sweating, nausea, and insomnia. In severe cases, alcohol withdrawal can lead to life-threatening complications such as seizures or delirium tremens, underscoring the importance of seeking medical supervision and support during this challenging process. (11)

It is advisable for individuals considering quitting alcohol to do so under the guidance of healthcare professionals who can provide appropriate care and interventions to manage withdrawal symptoms safely.

How to Detox from Alcohol Safely

Detoxifying from alcohol safely involves a systematic and supervised process to manage the physical and psychological effects of alcohol withdrawal. The primary goal is to eliminate alcohol from the body while minimizing potential health risks. Seeking professional medical guidance is key during the detox process to ensure a safe and supportive environment.

Medications may be administered to alleviate withdrawal symptoms, and individuals are closely monitored for any complications. Emotional and psychological support is also provided to address the mental challenges associated with detox.

A well-structured and individualized approach, under the care of healthcare professionals, increases the likelihood of a safe and successful alcohol detoxification process.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Delirium Tremens?

Serious alcohol withdrawal seizures can strike during a person’s withdrawal timeline. The key to survival is to recognize the symptoms.

They include: (10)

  • Severe confusion (delirium)
  • Tremors
  • Agitations
  • Excessive sleep
  • Fearfulness
  • Hallucinations
  • Strange bursts of energy
  • Stupor
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Seizures

During this terrible event, a person may even lose control of their motor skills. Complications of delirium tremens can include falls, seizures, cardiac distress, or even heart attack.

These serious symptoms can even cause death. Seek medical attention if you have tried to stop drinking on your own and are experiencing any of the above symptoms.

Seeking Help for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Because alcohol withdrawal can be painful and potentially dangerous, people must get help from experienced healthcare professionals.

For alcohol abuse disorder treatment, medical detox centers and inpatient rehab facilities are especially helpful. In addition, because dangerous seizure disorders are a risk factor for alcohol withdrawal, medical professionals in detox and rehab centers can safely monitor patients for these complications.

It’s also important to seek treatment if you experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop on your own. Medical professionals can prescribe treatment options and help patients safely taper down from alcohol to lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms. A doctor can prescribe anxiety medications and medications for comorbid mental health conditions to help alcohol withdrawal patients.

In cases where delirium tremens are suspected, patients will need to stay in a hospital where they can be monitored and prescribed medications for seizure disorders.

For people struggling with alcohol addiction, attending a medical detox center and a rehabilitation facility is a proven effective way to get addiction treatment and related medical care. They can even help with mental health issues associated with alcoholism through various support group activities.

You don’t have to go it alone. Going through alcohol detox may seem scary at first — but it will help you get back to normal. Then, you can begin to pick up the pieces and get your life back on track.

Contact Zinnia Health at (855) 430-9439 to receive alcohol detox in medically supervised treatment centers. Our caring staff is available 24/7 to help you along your path to sober living.


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Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us