CAN YOU ACTUALLY DIE WHILE DETOXING FROM ALCOHOL?
Absolutely. When a person is dependent upon alcohol, an alcoholic, the body gets accustomed to having the alcohol in the blood stream and accommodates to having it there. When the person stops drinking the body detects this as a deficiency and reacts to it causing both mental and physical problems which can be mild or serious and life-threatening.
Since alcohol acts like a depressant in the system, slowing down the brain for example, when it is withdrawn it causes an opposite effect. This is because the brain works hard to keep a certain level of activity or alertness up in the presence of alcohol.
The adjustment to stay up or activated persists past the last drink and the brain is activated, hyperactive in a sense. How hyperactive the brain and body are after the last drink depends upon how much you have been drinking over what period of time.
The daily drinker he may wake up with shaky hands, high blood pressure, and anxiety which is eased or eliminated after the first drink of the day- often called an eye-opener.
If you have a loved one who wakes up to a Bloody Mary every day, or cold vodka from the freezer, he may be an alcoholic trying to ease his morning withdrawal. Other signs and symptoms include sweating, headache, nausea, vomiting, and insomnia or disturbed sleep.
The problems that arrive after you stop drinking if you are an alcoholic come on about six (6) hours after the last drink for most. If you have a severe problem with alcohol you can actually have withdrawal when you reduce the amount you drink.
Most people are aware the alcohol withdrawal can cause seizures which are due to extreme activity of the brain without a purpose. This is a serious sign and NO ONE should be allowed to have seizures from alcohol withdrawal as brain cells die off and the patient can die too! If you are shaky when you stop drinking, see a doctor for medication assisted or managed withdrawal.
The most severe form of withdrawal is seizures with hallucinations seeing things, feeling things, or hearing things- call delirium tremendous (DTs). Olfactory hallucinations smelling things that are not there- are a very serious sign too.
Do not wait to call 911 when your loved one complains of any of these kinds of hallucinations as they can have a seizure which can not be stopped by medications and the brain consumes more oxygen than the blood can carry which results in death.
A very small percentage of people get DTs since most withdrawal is treated with medications. When it occurs it is also associated with delusions, confusion, fast heart beat, high blood pressure, fever, and heavy sweating.
Do not let alcohol withdrawal progress to these end stage forms of withdrawal- anxiety, pacing, craving, and high blood pressure and hear rate are warming signs to get medical care.
People who have had seizures once are more prone to get them again and high blood pressure and heart rate can cause stroke or heart attacks. The older the person and the more heart and lung problems he has, the more serious and life-threatening the withdrawal.
HOW MUCH OR HOW OFTEN TO YOU HAVE TO DRINK BEFORE EXPERIENCING PROBLEMS FROM QUITTING?
The amount that you have to drink or the amount of time you have to drink without stopping before you will have withdrawal varies from person to person. If you drink daily around the clock, only stopping to sleep, you can expect to have problems when you stop after only six weeks of regular exposure.
This changes if you take sedatives, sleeping pills, or muscle relaxants. The presence of the pills can mask the withdrawal so you do not know that when you stop you go into withdrawal. But, if you stop the pills to, or even reduce your dose, you can have withdrawal.
HOW IS ALCOHOL ADDICTION DIAGNOSED?
A doctor can diagnosis alcohol use disorders, including alcoholism, using a combination of history taking and physical exam. We often look for consequences of regular use like liver disease, sleep disturbances, or heart rhythm problems. Alcoholism is called the “great masquerader” since exposure to alcohol over time can cause damage to major organs in the body and mimic, or look like, other diseases. This makes it hard to diagnose.
In general, we have a way to assess problems associated with alcohol, and drugs and we can count the number of problems.
- More time spent using than predicted when you started using during an episode
- Desire to stop but unable to
- Using over time, getting something to use, using, recovering from using and starting the cycle over again every day
- Preoccupied with alcohol
- Use interfering with life’s activities
- Using, despite consequences
- Using interferes with activities that you like to do
- Use in dangerous situations, like while driving
- Need to use more to get the same effect (tolerance)
- Negative consequences when use stops (withdrawal)
- Use after a bad episode
If you can endorse 6 or more things, you have a severe problem. It is moderate if you endorse 4 or 5 and mild for 2 or 3 problems.
WHY IS WITHDRAWAL FROM ALCOHOL MORE DANGEROUS THAN OTHER SUBSTANCES?
Alcohol withdrawal is life-threatening. The drugs make you sick but the adult will generally not die from withdrawal. Opioid, or heroin and fentanyl withdrawal, can kill the unborn fetus.
WHAT IS THE PROPER WAY TO DEAL WITH ALCOHOL ADDICTION?
Treatment by a professional – starting with the physician to detoxify you. After you are medically stabilized, you should seek counseling.
Treatment progresses at Two Dreams through three phases- coming in where we take a factual history of what happened; looking inward where we do the emotional work and look at the emotional impact of what has happened; and looking out where we put a plan into action to build on the gains made in treatment.
Additionally, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is widely available and people who go to three or more meetings a week after treatment do better than those who go to two or fewer. In AA there is a saying, “don’t drink and go to meetings!”
Dr. Barthwell answers your questions on the next page.