The Dangers of Alcohol Detox

An estimated 16 million people in the United States have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Approximately 6.2 percent or 15.1 million adults in the United States ages 18 and older had AUD in 2015. This includes 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women. Adolescents can be diagnosed with AUD as well, and in 2015, an estimated 623,000 adolescents ages 12–17 had AUD.” 

Those numbers show that alcohol misuse is widespread. Alcohol kills more Americans than opioids although opioid pain relievers get most of the attention at the moment. If you are 21 and older, alcoholic beverages can be bought and consumed legally. Alcohol is readily available in many places across the country, and socially accepted as a recreational drug. America has a long-standing relationship with alcohol.

“Every century, our drinking pendulum—the radical change in our relationship to alcohol—swings,” writes Susan Cheever in Drinking in America. “In the 1830s we were the drunkest country in the world. By 1930 we had outlawed drinking entirely, with disastrous results. The swings accelerated after prohibition—in the 1950s and ’60s we were again awash in alcohol. Although in the twenty-first century there are more laws and more stringent social controls on drinking than there have ever been in our history, we are drinking enough to make alcoholism a significant public health problem.”

Not only can drinking too much alcohol escalate into an alcohol use disorder, trying to stop drinking on your own once you have a severe AUD can be dangerous—more dangerous than you think! Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can occur as early as two hours after the last drink. Typically, symptoms will peak within the first 24 to 48 hours. 

If the AUD is severe, however, and the alcohol abuse has been going on for a long time, withdrawal symptoms can become life threatening. Delirium tremens is one of the most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. It can surface within 48 hours after the last drink and involves confusion, shaking, hallucinations and high blood pressure. Heavy drinkers who suddenly stop may see or hear things other people do not. Occasionally, very elevated body temperatures or seizures may result in death. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances from which to withdraw.

In severe cases, AUD patients can become delirious within a day or two of cessation and definitely require medical attention. Some estimates put the mortality rate for patients with delirium tremens at 30 percent, making detoxing on your own a possibly life-threatening ordeal. 

Detoxification from a severe AUD should be handled by medical doctors and nurses. Even better if they are addiction professionals as well. Addiction treatment in a general hospital setting is often insufficient as many physicians are not adequately trained in addiction medicine. 

The Farley Center offers superior addiction treatment services to individuals from all walks of life.  As an 12 Step and medication-assisted based program, we offer flexible treatment services that help patients achieve long-term recovery. Following detox, Farley patients receive psychotherapy, experiential therapeutic interventions, integration into a 12-step recovery program, education, and sober-life skills.

Alcoholism is not just social drinking gone awry, as too many people assume. In many cases, addictions are not caused by the availability of harmful substances alone, but by attempts of people suffering from anxiety, trauma, and depression to self-medicate these mental health issues. Since they are frequently the real drivers behind the substance misuse, these underlying conditions need to be addressed in treatment. It is also important to overcome inaccurate ideas about alcohol addiction, fight the stigma still attached to this disease, and educate citizens about the scope of the problem. 

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. The 2019 theme, “Help for Today, Hope for Tomorrow,” is designed to draw attention to the pervasive impact that alcohol, alcoholism and alcohol-related problems have on young people, their friends, families and communities—and to highlight the reality that help is available and recovery is possible.