Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey May Cause Death

If alcoholism or alcohol abuse is causing negative effects in your life, you may feel at your wit’s end, ready to quit once and for all. While stopping addiction is a life-changing decision with many positive effects, it’s not safe to treat alcoholism alone. Once you’re ready to be sober, you can be tempted to undergo this transformation solo, but please consider the health hazards before proceeding.

Quitting alcohol “cold turkey” — renouncing alcohol suddenly and completely — often goes under the moniker “self-detoxing.” Forgoing alcohol and undergoing detox alone can be dangerous and sometimes life-threatening. Here, we’ll look at what effects quitting alcohol can have on the body, why self-detox is dangerous and other options for safe alcohol addiction recovery.

What Is Medically Supervised Alcohol Detoxification?

The safest way to quit alcohol is to seek professional treatment in a safe setting equipped for detoxification. Medical attention will ensure the minimization and management of the negative and life-threatening effects of alcohol withdrawal through necessary medications.

12 Keys provides a hospital-type setting for alcoholics serious about defeating their addiction. Staff members include registered nurses, addiction psychiatrists, and psychologists, physicians specializing in substance detoxification and counselors. Each client has room and bed and receives constant monitoring from staff members to ensure their safety and comfort during the detoxification process.

alcohol slows brain function

Dangers of Cold Turkey Alcohol Detox Without Medical Supervision

To understand the impact of detox, you first need to know what alcohol does to your brain. The high that you feel when you drink is the alcohol’s depressant effect on your brain. Alcohol interferes with your brain’s normal messaging system, sending erroneous sensory perception messages that lead to disorientation. Alcohol acts as a depressant, slowing down certain brain functions. This makes you feel relaxed and sluggish. At the same time, it’s slowing down your respiration, rate which can reach dangerously low levels with continued consumption.

Alcohol also works in the pleasure centers of your brain, where the addiction forms. It forces the release of feel-good chemicals that train you to repeat this drinking behavior. Over time, your brain chemistry changes to accommodate the presence of alcohol in your system. The changes allow your brain to maintain vital functions despite the effects of the alcohol.

Detoxification begins when you stop drinking alcohol, and your brain chemistry starts to change. As soon as your blood alcohol level drops, the new balance throws off the alcohol-influenced one your brain had created. The sudden absence of alcohol leaves a void that your brain is not ready to fill. The result is some dangerous and uncomfortable symptoms.

Quitting alcohol inhibits the release of massive amounts of dopamine and other neurotransmitters associated with addiction — the primary cause of withdrawal symptoms. It is as if your brain goes into shock and doesn’t know what to do. Without the feel-good chemicals, alcohol creates anxiety and depression are possible, at least in the short term. The pleasure centers of the brain are not the only ones affected by alcohol withdrawal.

Signs of withdrawal typically begin within 12 to 24 hours of abstaining from alcohol, but they could begin much earlier for long-term alcoholics. Many alcoholics develop a lifestyle that allows them to maintain a certain blood alcohol level at all times. The brain adjusts to this level, so when it’s exceeded, even slightly, the drinker experiences inebriation. A slight reduction in the alcohol level, say in the first several hours of abstinence will also trigger a reaction.

People who attempt to stop alcohol without medical supervision are in danger of developing life-threatening health issues involving the heart, liver, nervous system and brain. These vital systems, controlled by the brain, are affected by alcohol consumption. You might not notice the changes because you usually introduce alcohol slowly over time. However, when removed from the system all at once, the blood alcohol level drops quickly, and the effects are quite noticeable.

In addition, the severity of withdrawal symptoms — such as nausea and vomiting, fever, overwhelming anxiety, depression, and severe joint pain — often results in the alcoholic resorting to alcohol to relieve the symptoms. This mechanism is part of the addiction. The brain learns that it feels better when there is alcohol. The habit of drinking is often an unconscious reflex to relieve pain or discomfort. Until the drinker addresses that habit, there will be a strong desire to continue whenever there is discomfort.

severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms

In addition to nausea, vomiting, fever, etc., there are some other extremely severe withdrawal symptoms to note:

  • Sudden Alcohol Cessation (SAC): A syndrome called Sudden Alcohol Cessation occurs after the body is shocked from the deprivation of alcohol it has adjusted to experiencing on a daily basis. This is the first part of detox and the phase with the most fatalities.
  • Delirium tremens (DT): Symptoms of delirium tremens often occur within 48-96 hours after an alcoholic had their final drink. However, DTs can also appear seven to 10 days following the last drink. People suffering from DTs become highly agitated or disoriented, feel paranoid or fearful and experience auditory or visual hallucinations. Others may lapse into a stupor, exhibit extreme sensitivity to touch, light and sound or fall into a coma-like sleep.
  • Seizures: Seizures happen with or without symptoms of delirium tremens and often affect people who have had serious health complications during previous alcohol withdrawal episodes. Generalized tonic-clonic seizures are the most common types of seizures affecting detoxing alcoholics.
  • Heart failure: Disturbances in heart rhythm during alcohol withdrawal may produce heart arrhythmias serious enough to interrupt heart contractions. Although heart failure appears more often in chronic or older alcoholics who already suffer from alcohol-induced deterioration, it can happen to anyone quitting alcohol without professional medical supervision.
  • Malnutrition: Alcoholics often neglect to eat properly, which leads to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Even alcoholics who do receive adequate amounts of food may exhibit signs of malnutrition, due to alcohol damaging the stomach cells involved in digestion and absorption of nutrients. Consequently, clients undergoing alcohol detox need nutritional supplements in addition to medications to offset deficiencies.
  • Kindling: When alcoholics (especially binge drinkers) repeatedly attempt to quit alcohol cold-turkey, a phenomenon called kindling results, which increases the intensity of each “set” of withdrawal symptoms. In other words, alcoholics who try to stop drinking repeatedly are at a higher risk of suffering severe and possibly life-threatening SAC symptoms.

Even individuals undergoing self-detox from alcoholism who do not experience Sudden Alcohol Cessation will develop other unpleasant and unsafe symptoms during the process. The second phase of alcohol detoxification is the longest phase, often lasting for months. During this phase, the brain and body begin to re-learn how to function properly without alcohol, and eventually resume regular function.

The extent to which someone suffers from these symptoms during self-detox varies across individuals. Some people will experience severe symptoms, some people feel symptomatic constantly, and for others, it seems to come and go unexpectedly.

Because the signs and symptoms of heart or organ failure can be difficult to identify, doctors don’t recommend that anyone use self-monitoring methods go through this unpleasant, dangerous process.

Can I Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

Professionals classify addiction as both chronic disease and mental illness. Chronic diseases, like heart disease or diabetes, are never fully cured but are manageable through diet, lifestyle changes, and medication. Mental illness, of course, refers to abnormal functioning in the brain. Some mental illnesses are chronic and some are curable.

As we learn more about how the brain functions, we find ways to treat mental illnesses and adjust behaviors doctors previously believed to be permanent. The understanding of and treatment for addiction has made great progress in the last decade.

The 12-step program developed by Bill Wilson in the early 1900s, on which he based Alcoholics Anonymous, was the first to show real progress in treating addiction. Part of the AA creed remains the recognition of addiction, even long into recovery. This would suggest that there is not a cure, but in fact, it serves as a reminder to participants of where they’ve come from.

The fundamental cause of addiction is the changes that take place in the brain that accompany substance abuse. The brain is always changing and is capable of reverting “back” to a non-addictive state. Brain cells die and regenerate on a regular basis, just like other types of cells in the body. This is how changes take place in the brain. Some changes are positive, like developing a more positive thought pattern, adding new memories, or learning more information.

When a substance like alcohol, however, becomes the catalyst for changes in the brain, the results are seldom positive, can be permanent, or might lead to worse changes. Alcoholism is often associated with anxiety and depression. These thought patterns develop over time through regenerating brain cells.

Here is a very simplistic example to illustrate the point: The brain creates thoughts through chemicals, produced in certain combinations and then read by the appropriate receptors. When the brain produces happy thought chemicals, but there are no happy brain structures (receptors) to read those thoughts, they do not happen. The happy brain chemicals go away without leaving any trace of happiness.

When happy brain structures die off for any reason, there is no guarantee that they will regenerate as happy brain structures. Unhappy brain receptors may grow to take their place. With more unhappy receptors available than happy ones, the brain’s ability to produce unhappy thoughts is much higher than happy ones. Once the natural balance in the brain is thrown off, it can be difficult to restore or even tip it in the right direction.

Whether addiction is chronic or not, active addiction does not have to be. Many people have stopped a drug habit and gone on to live a long, happy life. They may still feel a desire to use drugs, but they develop strategies to overcome those cravings and keep their brains clean. The first step in restoring the natural balance to the brain, however, is eliminating alcohol.

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How to Quit Alcohol Safely

Seeking a way to recover from alcohol addiction is admirable. Alcoholism itself can lead to a wide range of problems, health-related and otherwise. However, safely quitting alcohol is the most important decision to make regarding addiction recovery.

Quitting alcohol cold turkey is not a safe way to undergo detoxification. Detoxification is never a process to undergo alone, and it can be impossible to predict how the process will affect you. In short: No one should ever quit alcohol cold-turkey without the support and guidance of professionals.

It is common for individuals to find the detoxification process mentally and emotionally exhausting. Coupled with the physiological symptoms, it can seem impossible and never-ending. It is during these especially trying times that people will self-medicate with alcohol or other substances just to “get through” the detoxification process. Self-medication or using alcohol during self-detox is a dangerous and ineffective practice.

Some individuals find self-detox so terrible, they quit and go back to using alcohol because it feels better than detoxification. Seeking medical assistance, managing symptoms with medication and receiving professional emotional support form the best way to ensure that detoxification is not only safe but also effective in addiction recovery.

It’s Not Just About Detox

Making the decision to quit an alcohol addiction is a courageous step on your path to health and happiness. It is courageous to acknowledge that you have a problem and reach out for the help you need. No one overcomes addiction alone. There is always a support system of professionals and friends involved in every successful recovery story.

While it is important to approach detox the right way, detox itself is not the whole story. In order for addiction recovery to be successful and lasting, detox needs followed up with behavior therapy and education. It is true that in time your brain can reverse most or all of the damage caused by alcohol, but without therapy, your alcohol habit will recur.

Addiction means that the alcohol has become a part of your brain’s reward system. The human brain is designed to develop patterns of behavior and repeat them. For most alcoholics, drinking is one of those habits. Simply removing the alcohol from your system and allowing yourself to fully sober up will not change your habit of drinking.

Changing behaviors is a complicated task with several variables involved. Discovering the cause of alcohol abuse can help ultimately change the drinking behavior. Many people turn to alcohol to masque the effects of trauma or an underlying mental illness. For these people, recovering from addiction means first recovering from that underlying condition. It is nearly impossible to diagnose the underlying condition until after detoxification.

Some types of behavior modification programs should immediately follow successful detoxification. After getting all the alcohol out of your system, you are going to want to drink again. This is because you haven’t addressed your underlying motivations for drinking. Learning some strategies to replace your drinking habit with healthier options will help bridge the gap until you can begin to make some other changes in your life.

Even if you could quit drinking cold turkey — which is not recommended — the abstinence would not last very long. Addiction means there are changes in your brain that make you continue to drink. Quitting cold turkey would be like holding your breath. Eventually, and before too long, you would have to let go. It takes time and professional intervention to re-train your brain to allow you to stop drinking for good.

Medications and Supportive Care

For clients who have difficulty eating during the first days of withdrawal, doctors may insert an IV until nausea and vomiting have passed. Tylenol or ibuprofen can help relieve flu-like symptoms, along with multiple detoxification medications prescribed by the staff doctor or psychiatrist. Alcohol detox medications suppress the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, help restore equilibrium to brain chemistry and eases cravings for alcohol.

Commonly prescribed alcohol detox medications include but are not limited to:

  • Librium: This medication, intended for short-term treatment (less than four weeks), relieves severe anxiety associated with alcohol withdrawal.
  • Lorazepam: This benzodiazepine, often given intravenously, is helpful for treating insomnia, nausea, seizure, and agitation common to detoxing clients.
  • Antihypertensives: Also called beta-adrenergic blockers, antihypertensives such as propranolol block peripheral symptoms of detoxification, especially excessive sweating, arrhythmia, body tremors, and rapid heartbeat. Propranolol and other beta-blockers work to improve blood circulation and reduce blood pressure by curbing heart rate and dilating constricted blood vessels.
  • Alpha-2 Adrenergic Agonists: Clonidine is the most commonly prescribed alpha-2 adrenergic agonist for clients undergoing alcohol detox. Clonidine minimizes the severity of withdrawal symptoms to help clients complete the detoxification process.

During the alcohol detoxification process, our clients report feeling empowered by a special bond that emerges between them and the staff members responsible for their well-being. When clients communicate their unpleasant withdrawal symptoms to staff and receive prompt attention for those symptoms, they feel like they can trust and depend on their treatment team for help when they need it.

We believe the development of a therapeutic yet compassionate relationship between alcoholics in medical detox and our staff is the most critical component of their recovery program. Once a client is no longer suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms, they can concentrate on the life-changing aspects of becoming sober and flourish with the help of our addiction counselors and many holistic experiences.

This is when the real healing work begins; detox is just the preliminary step. Safely completing detox allows you to embark on a life-changing journey. Recovery is a trek toward a happy, healthy lifestyle without drugs and alcohol. At 12 Keys, we believe that everyone is capable of living a substance-free life that is happier and more fulfilling than they might even imagine.

Quitting Alcohol Safely Begins at 12 Keys

If you or someone you love is ready to take the first step in alcohol recovery, contact us today to learn more about our support services and why stopping alcohol cold turkey won’t work. We have the facilities and the expertise to make detoxing much safer and more comfortable than you can at home. Most importantly, we follow it up with the behavior modification techniques necessary for each individual to achieve lasting recovery.

Addiction is complicated. We want to make your recovery as comfortable as possible. Contact 12 Keys today and let us guide you through this life-changing journey. The sooner you get started, the easier it will be.

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