Jul 9, 2024

Can You Die from Alcohol Withdrawal?

Withdrawal from addictive substances, including alcohol, can be one of the most physically and mentally challenging events in a person’s life. Alcohol withdrawal comes with a list of unpleasant symptoms ranging from mild to severe. 

Although rare, life-threatening withdrawal symptoms from alcohol do occur, the risk of death from alcohol withdrawal is entirely preventable

Can Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Death – What To Know

The severity and dangers of withdrawal from alcohol generally depend on the individual and their alcohol use. Age and general health can be factors, but the duration and severity of addiction play a significant role. 

Alcohol detox is different in some ways from the risks of drug withdrawal. For starters, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. This is why alcohol can make you feel sleepy and cause sluggish movements and delayed responses. 

The body naturally tries to compensate for the depressed nervous system, doing what it can to keep all the pistons firing in the brain. When an addicted person stops consuming alcohol, it takes time for the body to adapt. 

The body has become tolerant of alcohol, which means the brain continually remains in a hyper-excited state – even when no alcohol has been consumed for several hours or days. 

The more serious withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol detox are primarily a result of the brain’s hyper-excited state. This can lead to symptoms such as seizures and delirium tremens (DT) that pose the highest risk. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Complications 

In milder cases, alcohol withdrawal produces symptoms such as sweating, tremors, nausea, vomiting, headaches, sleep disturbances, and anxiety. These symptoms are all completely normal and typically begin within the first 6-24 hours after the last drink. For most people, these milder symptoms will generally pass within two to three days. 

For more severe alcohol addiction, it takes the body and brain longer to recover, and you’re more likely to experience neurological symptoms of withdrawal. 

Delirium Tremens

Complications can occur if a person experiences seizures, but the greatest risk is with delirium tremens. This stage of withdrawal can cause a spike in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, fever, stroke, and cardiac issues. 

At this stage, dehydration is also a serious risk. The sweating and vomiting, combined with the potential for electrolyte imbalance, create a serious medical situation where the risk of cardiac arrest increases. 

Delirium tremens are possible but actually not common in alcohol withdrawal. Only a small percentage of individuals in alcohol detox will experience them. However, while certain risk factors exist, it’s impossible to predict who will experience delirium tremens and who won’t. 

It’s important to understand that even the most severe, life-threatening withdrawal symptoms can be prevented or managed with proper care. This is why it is extremely important to undergo alcohol detox in a medical facility or approved inpatient addiction treatment center that has the appropriate staff on hand to monitor and manage these symptoms. 

When detox is medically monitored, the withdrawal death risk is extremely low. 

If you or your loved one are in urgent need of care for alcohol withdrawal, call 911 right away. If you’re preparing for alcohol detox and need information about a licensed addiction treatment center near you, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers an online provider directory and a 24-hour National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Severe Withdrawal Symptoms 

If you or your loved one has attempted to go through alcohol detox on their own, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of severe withdrawal symptoms. If you notice any of the following symptoms, seeking medical help is critical. 

Recognizing Severe Withdrawal Symptoms

It’s essential to be vigilant for the following severe withdrawal symptoms, which indicate a critical need for medical intervention:

  • Tremors: Uncontrollable shaking, particularly in the hands.
  • Pale Skin: Indicating poor blood circulation or shock.
  • Loss of Consciousness: Fainting or unresponsiveness.
  • Fever: High body temperature, often accompanied by sweating and chills.
  • Chest Pain: This could signal a heart issue or serious medical emergency.
  • Dehydration: Severe fluid loss due to vomiting and sweating.
  • Profuse Sweating: Excessive sweating even in the absence of heat or exertion.
  • Vomiting: Frequent and severe, leading to dehydration.
  • Extended Deep Sleep: Difficulty waking up from deep sleep, lasting more than 12-24 hours.
  • Rapid Heart Rate: Heart pounding or racing can indicate stress on the cardiovascular system.
  • High Blood Pressure: Dangerously elevated blood pressure levels.
  • Lack of Eye Movement: Eyes that do not move or respond to stimuli.
  • Extreme Sensory Sensitivity: Overreaction to light, sound, or touch.

First Steps to Take

  1. Call 911 Immediately: If any severe symptoms are present, contact emergency services without delay.
  2. Do Not Leave the Person Alone: Stay with the individual until medical help arrives, ensuring their safety and comfort.
  3. Provide Basic First Aid: If trained, offer basic first aid while waiting for emergency responders. If possible, keep the person hydrated and maintain a calm environment.
  4. Avoid Self-Medication: Avoid treating severe symptoms with over-the-counter medications or home remedies.
  5. Inform Medical Personnel: When help arrives, provide detailed information about the person’s alcohol use, symptoms observed, and any previous medical history.

Seeking prompt medical attention can prevent the most severe consequences of alcohol withdrawal, ensuring a safer and more manageable detox process.

Can You Die from Withdrawal? Knowing When to Seek Help 

Death from alcohol withdrawal is extremely rare. However, it’s also preventable with proper care and treatment during detox. We strongly encourage anyone beginning their journey of recovery from alcohol addiction to seek help from an inpatient addiction treatment center that can care for them during detox. 

Once alcohol withdrawal is complete, there are many options available to you for continuing on the road to recovery. Massachusetts Center for Addiction offers a comprehensive continuum of care, including evidence-based treatments and a holistic approach that is centered on the individual. 

If you or your loved one need help with alcohol addiction, please reach out to the Massachusetts Center for Addiction today at 844-486-0671.

MCA Staff
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