One of the most difficult steps of addiction recovery is the withdrawal stage. For some substances, like alcohol, withdrawal can be dangerous to your health. For this reason, it’s important people seek professional assistance when attempting to sober up and kick their addiction to alcohol.
In this article, we’re exploring the dangers of alcohol withdrawal.
Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal
In the United States, over half of all adults report having at least one drink each month. Of those, nearly half report excessively drinking, and over 5% of them qualified as having an alcohol use disorder (AUD.) Part of this disorder involves the dangerous aspect of withdrawing from the toxic effects of alcohol on the bodily system. This journey from excessive drinking to withdrawal typically includes the states of tolerance and dependency.
Here’s what you need to know about the dangers of alcohol withdrawal.
The physical process of developing a tolerance can occur with any addictive substance.
Tolerance refers to the ability of the brain to compensate for the amount of substance that is being introduced into the body. In the case of alcohol, tolerance manifests as the drinker experiencing the ability to continue functioning, even while consuming increasing amounts. A person’s tolerance levels may be dependent on individual biology, the drinking environment, and the tasks performed while drinking. Those who grew up with a parent who consumed large quantities of alcohol may also be prone to exhibiting high levels of substance tolerance.
The presence of tolerance for alcohol can be the first warning sign of a developing alcohol dependency. Drinkers who can “hold their liquor” are often tempted to consume higher quantities and are prone to overestimate their abilities to respond to situations outside of a specific activity. This can result in increasing the demand on the brain and body to adapt to the influence of alcohol. This process changes the relationship with alcohol from one of tolerance, to one of dependency.
In order for alcohol withdrawal to occur, one must first develop a physical dependence on alcohol. Anyone who has awoken with a hangover after a night of binge drinking has experienced a taste of what alcohol withdrawal can be like. Over the course of the night, the brain has been busy adapting and attempting to compensate for the foreign substance that was being excessively introduced. Come morning, the bodily system is frantically working to restore sober homeostasis.
With alcohol dependency, the consistent introduction of alcohol forces the brain to be in a continual state of adaptation. It learns to anticipate that alcohol is a part of daily functioning, and begins to adjust the way that the body produces chemicals and hormones on a daily basis. In essence, the brain and body have learned to await the fuel of alcohol to continue operating. The longer that this dependence on alcohol has a chance to develop, the more difficult it tends to be for the body to adjust to being sober.
Symptoms of Dependence on Alcohol
Not everyone who drinks too much will develop a dependency on alcohol. While up to one-third of all adults have been reported as being excessive drinkers, only one out of 30 is considered to be alcohol dependent. Genuine alcohol dependency is considered a medical condition, and medical intervention is often required in order to alleviate it.
In order to diagnose the presence of alcohol dependence, several factors will be present. A dependent person will tend to experience a strong craving for alcohol and will continue drinking in spite of consequences. He or she will likely have developed a tolerance for consuming more alcohol over time. And, most overtly, ceasing to drink for a period of time will result in physical and mental discomfort. This latter sign of dependence is what is referred to as withdrawal.
Physical Dangers of Withdrawal from Alcohol Dependence
Due to the nature of alcohol dependence consisting of the body’s adaptation to a consistent supply of a foreign substance, you can expect that the body will experience confusion when this supply is stopped. Delirium tremens (also known as the DTs) is one of the most familiar symptoms of this type of bodily shock.
The list of physical symptoms for DT can include shaking and trembling, light sensitivity, nausea, insomnia, and mental confusion. Studies indicate that up to one-third of all people experiencing acute alcohol withdrawal will experience full seizures.
These physical symptoms typically appear within 48-72 hours of stopping the intake of alcohol, and they can be life-threatening.
Mental Health Dangers of Withdrawal from Alcohol Dependence
The dangers associated with alcohol withdrawal don’t stop at the physical level. Not only will a person in withdrawal be fighting with biology, but there will also be another battle on the psychological front.
Mental health effects of withdrawal can include anxiety, depression, agitation, anger, fear, and even hallucination.
This state of psychological distress can impede the ability to seek proper physical care during the process of withdrawal. As with physical symptoms, mental health symptoms can manifest anywhere from hours to days, after taking the last drink.
Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal
Due to both the physical and psychological dangers of withdrawal from alcohol, it is often advised to seek professional alcohol addiction treatment. The process of medical intervention in the case of withdrawal is referred to as detoxification. As the name of the treatment implies, the process involves easing the body off of the dependence on the toxins present in alcohol. This typically occurs while in an inpatient setting, and medications to ease the symptoms of withdrawal can be administered orally or intravenously.
Medical intervention will typically start with an intake interview, where the specialist will go over your individual treatment needs. It will include health screenings, such as blood tests, blood pressure, oxygen, and mental status examinations. The specialist is likely to ask questions about your alcohol use history, as well as determine the timeline for the onset of your withdrawal symptoms. If possible, you will want to arrange for detox intervention before the withdrawal symptoms have a chance to kick in.
Following medical intervention for withdrawal treatment, most programs will offer ongoing support for maintaining sobriety. These options may include continuing an inpatient stay or transitioning to a sober living facility. For those with less intense needs for ongoing support, most communities also offer outpatient substance abuse treatment programs. These programs will often include support groups, individual counseling, and therapy.