Alcohol Withdrawal Basics: Why It Could Kill You

Withdrawal is the process during which your body transitions from being addicted to being physically free from the effects of the substance. For heroin users, this means enduring a painful, persistent flu-like set of symptoms. For people with alcoholism, stopping drinking can lead to everything from psychological symptoms like anxiety and irritability to depression, tremors, seizures, severe confusion and death. Most deaths from alcohol withdrawal are due to delirium tremens, an extreme form of alcohol withdrawal.

Delirium Tremens: How Common Is It and How Many Sufferers Die?

Around 5% of people with alcohol withdrawal get delirium tremens, often called the DTs. This extreme reaction is characterized by a severely confused state, disorientation, hallucinations and alcohol withdrawal seizures. The risk of DTs is greater if you’ve been drinking a lot each day for a long time. For example, people who drink more than two bottles of wine, seven pints of beer or a half-liter of hard alcohol every day for many months have a much greater risk of DTs, but you can also get the DTs if you drink less over a longer time.

About 1 in 20 people who get the DTs die, but this death rate substantially reduces if you receive medical care. Some studies suggest the death rate from the DTs is even higher than this, though. This is one of the most compelling reasons that people with alcoholism should receive inpatient medical care during detoxification.

Overall Mortality from Alcohol Withdrawal and Other Considerations

The DTs are the biggest factor in determining the mortality rate from alcohol withdrawal, but researchers have considered the impact of other factors. While alcohol withdrawal seizures alone have not been conclusively demonstrated to cause deaths, a study in Spain looking at overall mortality from alcohol withdrawal found that 6.6% of people admitted to a hospital with alcohol withdrawal syndrome died. Patients were more likely to die if they had cirrhosis, the DTs, pneumonia, difficulty breathing or chronic illnesses.

Medical Support Matters for Alcoholism Sufferers

Estimates of death rates among people with alcohol withdrawal range from about 1 in 400 to over 1 in 20, but with over 15 million alcohol-dependent adults in the U.S., even 1 in 400 represents many lives lost. This is why tackling alcohol addiction and ensuring that people in withdrawal receive adequate medical care is so important. If you know somebody struggling with alcoholism, don’t delay getting them help.

Resources

“Alcohol Facts and Statistics” – National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

“Alcohol withdrawal” – National Library of Medicine

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000764.htm

“Delirium tremens” – National Library of Medicine

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000766.htm

“Recognition and Management of Withdrawal Delirium (Delirium Tremens)” by Marc A. Schuckit

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra1407298

“Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal” by Louis A. Trevisan et al.

https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/61-66.pdf

“Death from seizures induced by chronic alcohol abuse—Does it exist?” by S. Christoffersen

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1059131107000544

“Analysis of the Factors Determining Survival of Alcoholic Withdrawal Syndrome Patients in a General Hospital” by R. Monte et al.

https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/45/2/151/134927/Analysis-of-the-Factors-Determining-Survival-of

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