Alcohol is one of the most commonly used and abused addictive substances in the United States. Almost 18 million people in the country struggle with an alcohol use disorder.
There are many reasons and factors behind how and why someone becomes dependent on any addictive substance.
In the case of alcohol, however, society’s acceptance of excessive alcohol use as normal or “harmless” behavior definitely plays a key role.
People’s overwhelmingly casual attitudes towards alcohol, especially compared to illicit drugs like heroin, make it that much easier for someone to begin misusing and abusing alcohol without realizing they might have a problem.
Even after someone has recognized that they are addicted and wants to take steps to break their addiction, they are still likely to underestimate the true danger of alcohol.
One way this happens is when someone decides to attempt to detox from alcohol at home as opposed to seeking out medical treatment at a professional detox center.
You can, technically, detox from alcohol at home, but that doesn’t mean you should.
Doing a home detox is only going to make the whole withdrawal process much more uncomfortable and agonizing than it needs to be, dramatically increasing the risk of relapsing before completing the detox.
Despite public opinion, alcohol can be just as dangerous as other drugs with more frightening reputations. I
n the case of withdrawal specifically, alcohol withdrawal is actually more dangerous than opioid withdrawal. Detoxing from heroin is very rarely a life-threatening process.
Detoxing from alcohol, however, can easily prove fatal without proper medical supervision.
The milder set of alcohol withdrawal symptoms that are usually associated with the early stages of withdrawal include a combination of both psychological symptoms as well as physical, flu-like ones.
Some examples of these alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
As the withdrawal period progresses, more intense symptoms are likely to manifest, including:
Finally, there are the less common but easily the most dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are usually associated with extremely severe alcohol use disorders where someone has been engaging in heavy, long-term alcohol abuse and are collectively referred to as alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
These symptoms include:
Delirium tremens is actually the main symptom of alcohol withdrawal syndrome that causes the symptoms listed above it. It is caused by hyperactivity of the nervous system, which is what happens when someone stops using a depressant substance like alcohol.
After an extended period of chronic alcohol abuse, the nervous system has gotten used to being flooded with the sedative effects of GABA and will have stopped producing the neurotransmitter on its own.
This means when someone stops drinking, and the GABA dries up, the nervous system goes into overdrive and triggers the previously mentioned symptoms of seizures, hallucinations, and the danger of becoming comatose and even dying.
Seizures can also manifest on their own separately from Delirium tremens and are characterized by uncontrollable convulsions, significantly impaired movement, confusion, and temporary amnesia, although that is rarer.
During a detox from alcohol, the biggest question is usually, “How long is this going to last?” This is is understandable due to the extreme discomfort caused by the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Unfortunately, while there is a general timeline for the process of alcohol withdrawal, the specifics of how long someone’s alcohol withdrawal will last will vary from person to person based on a set of factors that are unique to them, including:
These factors significantly impact both the severity and the length of the alcohol withdrawal process. Keeping that fact in mind, the general alcohol withdrawal timeline is as follows:
However, as previously mentioned, this timeline becomes very different in the event of alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
Delirium tremens, for example, can take up to three entire days to manifest, and at least another three days to run its course, although it can sometimes last as long as several weeks.
If someone is going to experience seizures during their detox from alcohol, it will usually happen within about 48 hours of their last drink. However, although it is rare, seizures can occur anywhere from five to even 20 days after someone’s last drink.
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The short answer is yes, alcohol withdrawal can kill you, especially if you attempt to detox from alcohol at home without at least some form of medical supervision or intervention.
Withdrawal from central nervous system depressants are much more dangerous than nearly any other substance withdrawal, and alcohol is no exception. Even the milder alcohol withdrawal symptoms have the potential to be life-threatening depending on the circumstances.
Constant vomiting and diarrhea can lead to very serious dehydration problems if someone is not careful about re-hydrating. This is much more likely to occur when detoxing without medical supervision and if left unchecked, require hospitalization.
The symptoms of depression, suicidal thoughts, and confusion can work in combination to create a dangerous situation wherein someone may harm themselves or worse. Trying to detox from alcohol on your own creates these kinds of problems that can otherwise be completely avoided by detoxing at a treatment center.
And these are just examples of the milder alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The more dangerous ones that have been previously mentioned can kill you outright if you are detoxing outside of a controlled medical setting.
Grand mal seizures are a major cause for concern when detoxing and can, as previously stated, be extremely difficult to predict.
These seizures typically come in two phases, the first involving a sudden loss of consciousness and tightening of the muscles. This is immediately followed by the second phase, the rapid contracting and relaxing of the muscles that result in uncontrolled convulsions.
During a home detox from alcohol, you have a much higher chance of accidentally injuring yourself during a seizure, and once it passes, you will be left in a state of total mental and physical exhaustion that will only aggravate the rest of the alcohol withdrawal symptoms. If you experience a seizure while asleep, the chances of it ending in death are incredibly high.
Not everyone who detoxes from alcohol will experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome, seizures or Delirium tremens. But for those that do, 5 to 25 percent of them will die from the resulting complications. This percentage, however, only applies to those detoxing without supervision. Seeking out medical detox services drastically reduces the chances of a fatal withdrawal due to Delirium tremens.
One reason why many people will choose to detox from alcohol at home is that they may have previously attempted to detox and, having experienced the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, already know what to expect.
However, there are several major problems with this thought process. The most obvious problem is that if someone has tried to detox from alcohol before, then they were clearly not successful. There is no reason to think that trying again will have a different outcome without the help of medical alcohol detox.
Another issue is that just because someone experienced certain alcohol withdrawal symptoms the last they tried to detox does not necessarily mean that they will experience them again. As previously stated, there are a variety of factors that influence the length, severity, and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, so you cannot assume it will be the same each time.
Finally, there is the alcohol detox phenomenon known as kindling. The kindling theory is that for someone who has repeatedly gone through alcohol withdrawal, each subsequent withdrawal is going to be worse and more intense than the one before it. In fact, people are far more likely to experience both seizures and Delirium tremens.
The idea behind kindling is that the damage done to the nervous system by both alcohol abuse and the previously mentioned hyperactivity caused by withdrawal leaves it more and more sensitive to the whole process with each withdrawal. So even if your first withdrawal experience was fairly mild, it is unlikely that your next will be as well.
All of these very real dangers posed by alcohol withdrawal are only worsened by trying to detox from alcohol on your own. Medical alcohol detox at a professional treatment center can literally mean the difference between life and death when it comes to dealing with alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
During medical alcohol detox, you will be carefully monitored by an experienced detox team in a safe, controlled environment. This avoids the risks of dehydration, malnutrition, self-harm, and relapse altogether.
Medical detox professionals are trained not only to handle unexpected complications resulting from alcohol withdrawal syndrome but also to make the process of alcohol withdrawal as smooth and comfortable as possible.
During medical alcohol detox, doctors can administer different medications to ease withdrawal symptoms as well as create a tapering schedule to slowly decrease your alcohol intake and avoid causing the shock to the system that can induce seizures.
Even if you have tried to detox before, that does not make you more prepared, just more likely to encounter more unpleasant and stronger withdrawal symptoms than before. Because of the dangers of kindling, it is even more important if you’ve already gone through withdrawal to seek out a medical alcohol detox instead.
There is absolutely no reason to face the potentially-fatal risks that come with attempting to detox from alcohol at home when a medical detox treatment can ensure your detox is safe and successful.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with an alcohol use disorder and is ready to begin the journey to rehabilitation and lasting sobriety, Delphi Behavioral Health Group can help to make it happen. We have admissions specialists available around the clock to help get you connected with a detox treatment center or find a facility and treatment program that best fits your needs. They can also answer any questions you might have about insurance, what to expect before starting treatment, and other resources.
Delirium Tremens: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (2018, April 30). Retrieved June 20, 2018, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000766.htm
Modesto-Lowe, V., Huard, J., & Conrad, C. (2005, May). Alcohol Withdrawal Kindling. Retrieved June 20, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3000183/
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. (2010). Acute Alcohol Withdrawal. Retrieved June 20, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0047840/
Trevisan, L. A., M.D., Boutros, N., M.D., Petrakis, I. L., M.D., & Krystal, J. H., M.D. (n.d.). Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal. Retrieved June 20, 2018, from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/61-66.pdf