While detoxing from most drugs is unpleasant, detoxing from alcohol can actually be life-threatening. Severe alcohol withdrawal, also known as delirium tremens or the DTs, affects around three to five percent of people with alcohol use disorder when they try to quit drinking. Of the people who do get DTs, between 15 and 40 percent will die without treatment. With treatment, that number drops dramatically to between one and four percent.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Typically, alcohol withdrawal symptoms begin between six and 12 hours after the last drink. Symptoms may include shaking, sweating, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, headache, mood swings, depression, fatigue, dilated pupils, elevated heart rate, and loss of appetite.
If you do develop the DTs, symptoms typically appear two to four days after the last drink and sometimes longer. The DTs may come on suddenly. Symptoms may include body tremors, confusion or disorientation, irritability or agitation, delirium, excessive sleep, fear, hallucinations, sensitivity to light, sound, or touch, and seizures. Seizures typically start between 12 and 48 hours after the last drink and are more common in people who have had problems with alcohol withdrawal in the past.
Although it’s not always possible to predict who will get DTs, there are several factors that make it more likely. As noted above, if you’ve had complications from alcohol withdrawal in the past, you will likely have complications in the future too. Very heavy drinking for a period of months or longer is another factor. If you’ve been drinking half a liter of vodka every day for the past six months, for example, you have a high risk of DTs. You are also at greater risk if you have a head injury, infection, or illness, as these make you more vulnerable to the stress of detox.
If you have any of these risk factors, it’s a good idea to consider medical detox. DTs can come on suddenly and can cause confusion and disorientation, which may make it hard to get help. If you or someone you know starts experiencing the symptoms of DTs while detoxing, call 911 right away. Detoxing in a facility significantly reduces the risk of death and serious complications from DTs. DTs are typically treated with benzodiazepines to reduce the risk of seizures and patients sometimes require antipsychotic medication as well. Medical staff can also give supportive care, keeping you fed and hydrated.
Alcohol is common and legal, so it’s easy to underestimate the danger of alcohol withdrawal. If you have been drinking heavily or have other risk factors, consider detoxing in a medical facility where your risk can be minimized.
Origins Behavioral Healthcare is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance abuse, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety.
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