Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Death?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Can Alcohol Withdrawal Lead to Death?

Drinking alcohol in any quantity affects your body and brain. Over time, drinking large amounts of alcohol causes your body to become dependent on alcohol to function. When you stop drinking, even for a short period, you may start to feel the effects of going without alcohol. These symptoms, which can include shaking, anxiety, and nausea, are a normal part of the withdrawal process.

Coping with alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be challenging on its own, but for some people, the condition can be life-threatening. It’s essential to understand who has a higher chance of severe alcohol withdrawal complications and how to manage them to reduce risks to your health. 

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is the body’s natural response to going without alcohol after you stop drinking. People who have an alcohol abuse problem or alcohol use disorder (AUD) are likely to experience these symptoms whenever they stop drinking.

Dependency occurs when your body requires alcohol to feel and function normally. People who have a dependency tend to notice they require more alcohol over time to receive the desired effects. The need to drink more lays the foundation for addiction.

Alcohol withdrawal has various symptoms depending on the severity of a person’s abuse. These symptoms can be divided into physical and mental effects.

Mental signs of alcohol withdrawal are: 

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Depression or low mood
  • Irritability 
  • Feeling jumpy or agitated 
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares 
  • Not being able to think clearly or having difficulty concentrating 
  • Insomnia

Physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Shakiness 
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Headache that won’t go away
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Pale skin 
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Muscle shaking (tremors) in the hands or other body parts 

These symptoms can vary. No two people are the same. Generally, those with mild alcohol abuse problems will experience fewer symptoms. The effects they experience are likely to be less intense and resolve faster.

People with moderate to severe alcohol addiction will have more intense symptoms that will likely last longer. In severe cases, there is an added risk of health complications.

Signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder

A severe alcohol use disorder meets six or more diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, IV (DSM-5). The list of symptoms mental health professionals use to diagnose an AUD are:

  1. You drink more than you plan to.
  2. Not being able to stop drinking when you want or try to.
  3. You spend a lot of time drinking or recovering from the effects of alcohol.
  4. You want to drink so much that you can’t think of anything else.
  5. Drinking interferes with your home, work, or personal life.
  6. You continue drinking even though it causes relationship problems.
  7. You cut back on hobbies, work, or other activities to spend more time drinking.
  8. You have done dangerous things while drinking or under the influence, such as driving, swimming, or operating machinery.
  9. You have continued to drink despite feeling more depressed, anxious, or having a memory blackout from alcohol consumption.
  10. You have had to drink more to get the desired effect.
  11. You’ve experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you tried to quit drinking or went without alcohol, such as shaking, nausea, and headache. 

In rare cases, a person with a severe alcohol use disorder who suddenly stops drinking can experience delirium tremens (DTs). The DTs can cause life-threatening complications, such as irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, seizures, and loss of consciousness.

The greatest risk of the DTs after quitting drinking is when you give up alcohol completely. In some cases, you can work with your doctor to detox at home with regular check-ins. In this scenario, medical professionals may advise clients to scale back their alcohol consumption gradually so their bodies have time to adjust to prevent serious health concerns. 

However, most experts suggest that you detox under the supervision of medical professionals in a hospital or at a treatment center. During the withdrawal process, your health will be monitored around the clock. 

Medical Detox

A total of 76.3 million people worldwide suffer from an AUD, and alcohol dependency causes 1.8 million deaths each year. Health complications associated with alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) can be deadly. AWS can be mild, moderate, or severe, and clients need the right level of support depending on their needs. 

In a medical detox program, you receive individualized care that includes prescription medications to ease your AWS symptoms. The most common medications include anti-seizure medications, beta-blockers, and benzodiazepines. These medications can reduce the severity of a person’s withdrawal symptoms, help them sleep, and lower their chance of experiencing severe health complications. 

If you are thinking about quitting drinking, you should first reach out for guidance on how to detox safely. In many cases, a medically assisted detox program is the safest way to protect yourself on your road to recovery. 

Can Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Death?

Yes, in severe cases, alcohol withdrawal syndrome can lead to death. Someone who does not receive emergency medical care can experience seizures or suffer a heart attack or stroke. 

The heightened risk is why receiving treatment from licensed medical experts is important. They can provide you with the information you need to know more about recovery, what to expect from detox, and how to find other resources.

Preventing Alcohol Withdrawal and Death

Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid alcohol withdrawal altogether. While medication can drastically reduce the intensity of symptoms, anyone who has a dependency should expect to have some discomfort during the first week without alcohol.

The good news is that alcohol withdrawal does not last forever. Most people notice symptoms improve over the first four days, and the majority of symptoms resolve completely within two weeks. Medically assisted alcohol detox can provide the greatest level of support during this time.

With a skilled team of doctors and substance abuse professionals overseeing your detox, you can protect yourself from serious complications and be more comfortable during the process. The other advantage of a professional detox is that an alcohol use disorder specialist will work with you during the process. When you are feeling a little better, they will work with you to figure out your next steps and help you develop a treatment plan to meet your needs.

What Happens During Alcohol Detox?

Supportive interventions are available for clients with moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Medical professionals may administer intravenous (IV) treatments for people who are vomiting and cannot keep liquids and foods down. The IV therapy will include electrolytes, a multivitamin, and hydration that supports their recovery. This treatment is often referred to as a banana bag.

For more severe cases, IV therapy with prescription medications is common. The risk of seizures increases for individuals with a history of alcohol withdrawal, so doctors will take additional steps to protect their clients.

There are two primary approaches to alcohol detox:

Fixed-Schedule Treatment

Patients who receive a fixed-schedule treatment are given a specific dosage of prescription medication for two to three days. They are closely monitored for any changes to their vital signs, and treatment is adjusted on an as-needed basis.

A fixed-schedule approach is more commonly used for patients who have a previous history of withdrawal symptoms or who are at an elevated risk of health complications.

Symptom-Triggered Treatment

Clients with mild to moderate alcohol withdrawal symptoms may only be given medication when they need it. If they show dangerous symptoms, the doctors may prescribe them medication to lower the chance of any serious complications. 

Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment

After detox, you can begin treatment. People can receive inpatient or outpatient therapy for their alcohol addiction. Inpatient therapy requires you to live at the facility while you undergo a treatment program. This type of treatment may be appropriate for people who have been drinking heavily for a long time, have attempted outpatient treatment in the past, or need more structure to prevent relapse.

Outpatient treatment is more flexible and better suited for individuals who have mild to moderate disorders. During this kind of program, you will live at home, and you can continue to go to work or school and attend to other commitments. This approach may work for people who have a strong support network outside the facility and feel they can abstain from alcohol without the structure of an inpatient program. Many treatment centers offer the option to switch to residential treatment if they find they are in danger of relapse. 

Whether you attend an outpatient or inpatient program, you will receive therapy. For instance, cognitive behavior therapy is a type of one-on-one talk therapy that has been proven to be effective in treating mental health issues like alcohol use disorders. You may also attend group therapy. These sessions can help with feelings of isolation, give you a safe space to discuss your challenges, and brainstorm strategies to prevent relapse. 

Finding Treatment

Research alcohol detox near you to learn more about your options. You can also call us at Alcohol Awareness to speak to an experienced hotline professional. Our team specializes in helping people find the best resources to support their recovery, including the right treatment center and other alcohol use disorder services, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) groups near you. 

Without help, alcohol addiction can be fatal. It is never too late to seek treatment. All you have to do is reach out and let someone give you the support you deserve to start recovery.

Remember, getting through detox is half the battle. Once you decide to quit drinking, the next step is finding the right professionals to support your recovery. Therapy, rehab, and support groups can all help you on your road toward a happier, healthier life. 

We encourage you to reach out if you have any questions. You can also explore our website to learn more about alcohol withdrawal syndrome. We are here for you. Call our free 24/7 alcohol abuse hotline at 855-955-0771 to learn more about treatment options.

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