Going through alcohol withdrawal is unavoidable if your plan is to stop drinking and recover from alcohol dependence. If your dependence has become severe enough to the point that you experience withdrawal symptoms when you quit drinking, chances are you need professional help to get through withdrawal safely without experiencing serious complications. In short, alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous if you try detoxing or withdrawing from alcohol on your own without treatment and supervision at an alcohol detox center.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal refers to the set of symptoms you might experience when you abruptly stop drinking alcohol after using heavy amounts on a regular basis. Drinking alcohol regularly can cause you to develop a tolerance, which is when you stop experiencing the effects of alcohol and need to start drinking higher amounts. Over time, this can lead to alcohol dependence and addiction.
Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Mild to moderate tremors, especially in the hands
- Irritability and mood swings
- Rapid heart rate
- Excess sweating
- Loss of appetite
- Cravings for alcohol
- Dilated pupils
- Not thinking clearly
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually begin within six to 24 hours after the last drink and can last anywhere between two and 10 days.
What Makes Alcohol Withdrawal Dangerous?
Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous due to the way alcohol interacts with certain brain neurotransmitters and the central nervous system to cause serious complications. For instance, alcohol causes GABA brain receptors to become less responsive. GABA is a neurotransmitter that regulates communication between the brain and the central nervous system. When a person suddenly stops drinking, changes to GABA can overexcite the central nervous system and trigger a wide range of dangerous withdrawal symptoms, including seizures and death.
People who stop drinking after a period of heavy intake may experience a severe form of alcohol withdrawal known as delirium tremens, which is dangerous and considered a medical emergency. Of the people who suffer delirium tremens, about 5% die from their symptoms.
Symptoms of delirium tremens may include:
- Body tremors
- Extreme agitation
- Delirium, or sudden severe confusion
- Changes in mental function
- Sudden mood changes
- Fatigue and deep sleep that lasts at least one day
- Bursts of energy
- Extreme excitement or fear
- Sensitivity to light, touch, and sound
Not everyone who goes through alcohol withdrawal is necessarily at risk for delirium tremens. The lifetime risk for developing it in those who abuse alcohol is between 5% and 10%. Other complications that can arise include hyperthermia and respiratory failure.
You may be at higher risk for experiencing delirium tremens if:
- You are a heavy drinker. This is defined as drinking eight pints of beer, five pints of wine, or one pint of hard liquor, like vodka, every day for more than 10 years.
- You are severely dependent on alcohol.
- You suffer intense cravings for alcohol.
- You have been suffering from alcohol dependence for a long time.
- You have a history of going through alcohol withdrawal.
- You have a history of seizures.
- You have previously gone through alcohol detox.
- You use other drugs in addition to alcohol.
- You suffer abnormal liver function.
- You have an acute illness triggered by consuming alcohol.
- You are an older adult.
- You drink alcohol after a prolonged period of not drinking.
- You arrive at alcohol rehab with severe withdrawal symptoms.
How Can Alcohol Withdrawal Be Safer?
The safest way to withdraw from alcohol is to go through alcohol detox. Alcohol detox is the first stage of treatment for alcohol addiction and allows you to withdraw from alcohol while being closely monitored and supervised by trained medical staff. This helps you stay safe in that you can be treated immediately in the event complications arise.
Medications may be used during alcohol detox to reduce your symptoms, prevent seizures, and help you experience a more comfortable recovery. Long-acting benzodiazepines like diazepam, chlordiazepoxide, and lorazepam are the most common medications used in alcohol detox. Benzodiazepines act as depressants to the central nervous system just like alcohol; however, they are found to be safer substitutes with the ability to relieve and prevent some withdrawal symptoms. Also, unlike with alcohol, benzodiazepines do not produce toxic effects on the pancreas, liver, and bone marrow.
Other benefits of undergoing alcohol detox include being able to avoid the risk of dehydration and having access to healthy meals that strengthen your immune system after being alcohol-dependent. Withdrawal symptoms like sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite can all lead to dehydration and malnourishment when you try detoxing on your own or at home, especially if you’re feeling too sick to prepare nutritious meals. However, alcohol detox usually takes place at a residential or inpatient rehab center where you can relax and focus on recovery while nutritious meals are prepared daily by an in-house chef.
Signs You’re Alcohol-Dependent and Need Alcohol Detox
How do you know if you’re at risk for alcohol withdrawal and need alcohol detox? Alcohol withdrawal usually only occurs in those who are physically dependent on alcohol. If you’re physically dependent, you might only feel and function “normally” if you’ve consumed alcohol. The onset of withdrawal symptoms when you abruptly stop also indicates you may be dependent on alcohol.
Other signs you may be suffering from alcohol dependence:
- You experience intense cravings for alcohol.
- You drink alcohol to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
- You only feel normal and like yourself when you drink alcohol.
- You need to drink high amounts of alcohol to feel the effects.
- You feel restless when you’re not drinking alcohol.
- You’re preoccupied with the thought of when you’ll be able to drink again.
- You use alcohol to treat symptoms like headaches and anxiety.
- You drink more alcohol than planned at any given time.
- You are unable to control your drinking once you start.
If one or more of the above signs apply to you, it’s possible you may be suffering from alcohol dependence. You may also be suffering from alcohol addiction or are very close to developing alcohol addiction.
Is Alcohol Rehab Necessary After Alcohol Detox?
Alcohol detox only treats physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, but won’t help you achieve long-term recovery from alcohol addiction. Addiction is a mental illness characterized by compulsive drug seeking and continued drug use despite harmful consequences. Behavioral therapy and counseling are often used in an alcohol rehab setting to treat alcohol addiction.
People who go through alcohol detox without receiving therapy for alcohol addiction often face a high risk of relapse. These individuals have come to expect the rewarding effects of alcohol and may feel lingering withdrawal symptoms of anxiety and restlessness in the absence of alcohol. However, counseling and therapy can teach patients how to effectively manage these triggers and stay sober long-term after alcohol detox.
Alcohol rehab may not be necessary for everyone who completes alcohol detox, but it helps instill healthy, sober lifestyle behaviors. Alcohol rehab uses interventions like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), 12-step support groups, and substance abuse education to teach patients the skills they need to navigate their communities without feeling the urge to use alcohol.
Alcohol detox is included as part of many alcohol rehab programs. If you undergo detox at a facility that doesn’t treat the behavioral aspects of alcohol addiction, ask for a referral to a treatment center that can help you recover from alcohol use disorder in full.
Recovering from Alcohol Addiction
Look for drug and alcohol rehab center that offers opiate detox, heroin detox, and alcohol detox so you can safely recover from drug and alcohol dependence. You can find luxury addiction treatment facility that provides amenities including yoga, acupuncture, and Jacuzzi to complement your stay as you withdraw from alcohol. Contact them or check your insurance benefits so you can begin the admissions and treatment process as soon as possible.