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Why Is Alcohol Withdrawal So Dangerous?

Monica Beyer is a mom of four and has been writing professionally since 2000, when her first book, Baby Talk, was published. Her main area of interest is attachment parenting and all that goes with it, including breastfeeding, co-sleepin...

Sudden sobriety may seem like a good idea, but could come with harmful side effects

For those who struggle with any sort of drug addiction, withdrawal can be a devastating facet of a recovery attempt. Alcohol, of course, is also a drug, and its withdrawal can lead to a host of symptoms and conditions that range from uncomfortable to severe and in some cases deadly. Let's take a look to see why alcohol withdrawal can be so dangerous.

Alcohol & the brain

Alcohol use takes a toll on the human body, and even small amounts can affect the brain — often, this is temporary and resolves after sobering up. For those who develop an alcohol use disorder (usually diagnosed when drinking results in distress or harm), however, the effects can be ongoing, and in some cases, permanent.

Additionally, the act of sudden sobriety can let loose a string of devastating physical events that can be difficult to cope with — it can also be fatal. For deeper understanding, we chatted with Vonnie Nealon, a Warriors Heart clinical lead and licensed chemical dependency counselor, to find out exactly what happens during alcohol withdrawal.

"Alcohol has a depressant effect on the body’s systems," says Nealon. "If you drink often and develop alcohol use disorder, your central nervous system adjusts to having alcohol in the brain. When the alcohol level drops in the brain, it causes withdrawal."

Sudden sobriety may seem like a good idea, but could come with harmful side effects
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Alcohol withdrawal

Nealon notes that alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to serious and are caused when the level of alcohol in the brain drops suddenly.

Mild symptoms can begin as early as six hours after the last drink. They can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Shaky hands

Over time, these symptoms can increase and become more distressing. Twelve to 24 hours after the last drink, new symptoms can include hallucinations, which means those affected can see, hear or feel things that aren't really there.

Unfortunately, this isn't the end of the story for some. Within the first two days after that last drink, further symptoms can appear. They can include:

  • Seizures
  • Heavy sweating
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fever
  • Confusion

Also, delirium tremens — which can include shaking, hallucinations and confusion — is a factor for some.

"Approximately 5 percent of people with alcohol withdrawal may experience delirium tremens, or DTs," explains Nealon. "DTs usually begin within 48 to 72 hours after the last drink. This is a severe withdrawal and at this stage symptoms may also include vivid hallucinations and delusions."

Medical detox

Due to the severity of alcohol withdrawal, medical detox is often recommended to ease the symptoms and potentially prevent seizures and DTs. Nealon says, "The old adage, 'It is always darkest before the dawn,' could be applied to the alcoholic as he or she seeks relief from the burden of continually needing a drink. Medical detox is the experience that leads them to the dawn and can start their recovery from alcohol use."

Medical detox can take place in an inpatient facility, where vital signs are monitored and medications given to offset symptoms. Additionally, mental health professionals are on hand to step in to help manage emotional and psychological effects of alcohol withdrawal.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe and life-threatening. While not everyone who drinks goes on to develop alcohol use disorder, it's important to note that withdrawal can be dangerous and brutal, and help is available if needed.

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