The Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal: What Happens When You Stop Drinking Alcohol Cold Turkey?Addiction Treatment
These days, it seems like alcohol is everywhere. It’s become synonymous with being social, having fun and enjoying life to the fullest. However, having a glass of wine during an outing or meeting a friend for a drink after work can quickly spiral out of control. Every year, 3 million people die from harmful alcohol use. Those who live experience a range of destructive mental and behavioral disorders that can ruin relationships, careers and families.
Harmful alcohol use — often referred to as heavy drinking or binge drinking — isn’t just having a beer or two on the weekends. Heavy alcohol use for men is defined as having four drinks or more on any given day, and three drinks for women. If you engage in heavy drinking, you may find that you’ve become dependent on alcohol. When someone realizes the control alcohol has over their life, one of their first reactions is to resolve to stop drinking immediately.
This “cold turkey” mentality seems like a good idea. After all, drinking always starts as a choice. Unfortunately, when you suddenly stop drinking alcohol, your body can go into withdrawal. When a person enters into withdrawal without the proper medical help and support, they can experience dangerous side effects.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
An occasional glass of wine or bottle of beer at a party probably won’t cause problems down the road, but if you habitually consume large quantities of alcohol over a prolonged period — weeks, months or years — your body becomes accustomed to alcohol’s effects. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it slows down your brain functions. Over time, your brain and entire central nervous system come to depend on alcohol to operate efficiently.
When you consume alcohol regularly, your brain and body have to work even harder to keep functioning. The brain puts significant energy into sending the right signals to the body to stay awake and communicate with the rest of your central nervous system. Alcohol impacts your heart rate, sleep, blood pressure and body temperature, among other things. It also changes your memory and the way your brain processes pleasurable feelings.
When you decide to quit drinking and pursue sobriety, you can expect to go through some form of alcohol withdrawal. This term describes what happens to your body when you suddenly stop drinking alcohol after a prolonged period of heavy drinking. The brain goes through withdrawal because it can’t immediately revert to its original patterns of alcoholism.
Depending on how long you relied on alcohol and how much drinking you did, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe. However, don’t be misled. Even mild withdrawal symptoms can be considerably uncomfortable, and quitting cold turkey should always occur under the supervision of experienced medical professionals.
Why Is Quitting Drinking Cold Turkey Dangerous?
Quitting drinking cold turkey is dangerous because of the side effects it can produce, especially if you are a heavy drinker or have been relying on alcohol for a long time. The more mild effects of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Shaky hands.
- Clammy skin.
- Depression or dysthymia.
- Loss of appetite.
- Memory loss and other short-term cognitive issues.
- Mood swings.
- Vitamin deficiency.
- Rapid heart rate.
In more serious cases, withdrawal may produce seizures and hallucinations. A small percentage of individuals may experience delirium tremens (DT) because of alcohol withdrawal. DT includes severe delusions and hallucinations, which can cause someone to feel like they’re having a mental breakdown. Individuals who experience DT may also suffer from high blood pressure, racing heart, confusion, heavy sweating or fever.
Individually, any of these symptoms can be uncomfortable. But when they combine for several days or even weeks, they can cause the person experiencing them to suffer significant mental and physical anguish. And, if a person has decided to go through this alone, they will likely give in and go back to drinking. In some cases, they experience life-threatening symptoms such as seizures, with no one around them to help.
What to Expect When You Stop Drinking
Although there’s no way to predict which withdrawal symptoms you’ll experience, you can expect that certain side effects come in a predictable order, beginning with tremors and quickly progressing into any or all of the issues listed above. The longer and more heavily you’ve been drinking, the more severe the symptoms will be.
In most cases, withdrawal effects subside after approximately five days, although some patients may take longer.
Being alone during withdrawal is one of the worst things you can do. The experience of it is intense. You may feel physically sick, or you may undergo more emotional issues, such as feeling agitated or anxious for no apparent reason. These problems are why it’s vital to go through withdrawal in a supportive environment.
In some cases, a person might try to stay with a well-meaning family member, but family members don’t usually have the knowledge or expertise to safely see them through such a physically and emotionally trying experience.
Can You Die From Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol abuse damages your internal organs. A doctor should conduct a thorough examination of your organs to determine if any damage exists and how much is present. They can help you develop a treatment plan before this organ damage causes serious — and potentially fatal — problems.
Some alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be deadly if left untreated or experienced alone, especially if you are at risk for DT. But with proper medical supervision and support, you can manage the side effects safely. Enrolling in an alcohol detox program will provide you with a medically guided plan for safe withdrawal, which reduces the risk of death from one or more of the symptoms you may experience.
How to Stop Alcohol Withdrawal
To understand what the brain goes through in withdrawal, picture driving a car and discovering the brakes have gone out. Your brain is careening around corners and operating at a fast and dangerous pace that your body simply can’t control. While there is no way to stop the “crash” that will inevitably come, there are some ways to minimize or avoid certain withdrawal symptoms. Here’s how:
Medicines called benzodiazepines can be prescribed to lessen symptom severity in severe cases. But sometimes, a patient simply needs a sleep aid or gastrointestinal medication to be more comfortable. Pain relievers, antidepressants or antiseizure medications may also be used when necessary.
People who abuse alcohol often experience vitamin deficiencies, including low levels of zinc, magnesium, folate, thiamine and phosphate. In some cases, they may also have low blood sugar or be malnourished. Taking prescribed supplements and eating a well-balanced diet can help ease symptoms because the body will get the nutrients it desperately needs to function.
3. Medical Intervention
In severe cases, a person experiencing alcohol withdrawal may need to spend some time in the hospital, especially if they have seizures, severe vomiting or DT. At the hospital, trained medical staff can monitor their breathing, heart rate and blood pressure to safely help them navigate these serious and potentially life-threatening symptoms.
Although the options listed above certainly help ease withdrawal symptoms, these issues can’t be cured with a magic pill. It takes time for your body to put the brakes on and begin slowing down. For most people, the safest place to do this is within a 24/7 supervised facility. Although family and friends may have good intentions and want to support you, withdrawal has several serious physical and mental side effects that are best treated by a team of experienced professionals.
After you have completed withdrawal and moved into the outpatient portion of your rehabilitation, supportive friends and family members will play a key role in your continued recovery.
How to Avoid Alcohol Withdrawal
Once your body has become dependent on alcohol, there’s nothing you can do to reverse this. If you decide to stop drinking cold turkey, supervised detox is the best and safest option for navigating withdrawal. However, if you attempt to taper off drinking rather than stop all at once, you might avoid, or at least minimize, withdrawal’s effects on your body.
How do you taper off drinking? This short guide shows how:
1. Dilute Your Drinks
Reduce the amount of alcohol you pour in a glass and mix it with water or another non-alcoholic mixer. Over time, reduce the amount of alcohol you pour in and increase the amount of water or mixer you use. Or, rather than mixing water into your drinks, you can drink a glass of water between each alcoholic drink. This allows you to continue the comforting ritual of holding a drink in your hand without the damage of higher alcohol levels.
2. Have a Plan
Tally up the number of drinks you have in a day. Then aim to reduce your drinking by one at a time. For example, if you have been drinking five glasses of wine each day, drop down to four. In a week, drop down to three. Then, keep going.
If possible, pour all drinks ahead of time, so you don’t risk losing count of how many drinks you’ve already had. You’ll also avoid pouring more into the glass as you go. You can also try scheduling the time of day you’ll consume each drink, then gradually spreading it out so there’s more time in-between each drink.
3. Change Up Your Social Life
If much of your drinking occurs socially, find new activities to do or friends to spend time with. Engaging in other pleasurable activities besides drinking can help you reduce the amount of alcohol you consume.
4. Participate in Medically Supervised Detox
Although detox programs help people who want to stop cold turkey, they can also assist with a more gradual method of alcohol withdrawal. This is typically done with medications that can ease alcohol cravings and provide similar feel-good sensations from the brain without the alcohol content.
Benefits of an Alcohol Detox Program
When you decide to quit drinking, it’s a moment to celebrate. This decision comes with a lot of challenges, however, and you shouldn’t face those obstacles alone. When you stop drinking, the best thing you can do is seek help from a reputable alcohol detox program. At a rehab facility, doctors and mental health professionals can guide you through the detox process in a safe and supportive manner. Among the many benefits of medically supervised detox, you will find:
1. Stable Environment
In a rehab facility, you won’t have access to alcohol and other dangerous substances. When those cravings hit, you won’t be able to give in and drink again because there won’t be anything there for you to drink. You’ll also be involved in a structured environment that provides medical assistance and keeps you focused and on track, so you can work through cravings without dwelling on them.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll be busy all the time. This form of smart recovery gives you structure and guidance as your body and mind begin healing. Sometimes that will mean spending time alone to think and manage the personal grief of dealing with an addiction. At other times, it will entail staying busy with activities or counseling sessions.
2. Less Chance of Relapse
Relapse — a return to destructive behaviors — is a risk for anyone recovering from substance abuse. But when you participate in an alcohol detox program and subsequent rehabilitation, you will receive the skills and coping mechanisms you need to overcome and avoid temptation. Although a treatment program can’t guarantee that relapse won’t happen, it has been found to reduce the chances of relapse occurring.
3. Plenty of Peer Support
While in a detox and rehabilitation program, you’ll meet and get to know others who are struggling just like you. You’ll meet together in organized support groups and have time for casual conversation and activities. This valuable time can help you see that you aren’t alone. Befriending other people on the same journey as you is an important part of staying strong and working through your withdrawal and long-term healing.
Seek Effective and Safe Alcohol Addiction Treatment
Synergy Recovery’s personalized addiction treatment program can help you overcome addiction in a safe and discrete setting. You’ll find a safe, stable environment that will help you every step of the way, and you won’t have to experience withdrawal cold turkey. In fact, many people find they can’t effectively quit using this method alone.
At Synergy, we believe in combining the use of medications to stop alcohol cravings with targeted counseling sessions to help you learn to live an addiction-free life. At our Bakersfield, California-based facility, our dynamic approach recognizes that addiction treatment is a journey. You won’t be healed overnight, but our goal is to provide a safe, supportive place to begin the process.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, don’t wait any longer. Contact Synergy today.