Alcoholism is a serious and deadly addiction that costs about 88,000 Americans their lives every year. This makes alcoholism the fourth highest cause of preventable death in the nation. Each year, roughly 17.6 million Americans are affected by alcohol addiction, and some will go to any length possible to overcome their addiction, including quitting cold turkey. While quitting in any capacity takes a lot of willpower and courage, doing it cold turkey does have some major disadvantages and could actually be hazardous to your health.
The Effect Quitting Cold Turkey Has On Your Neurochemistry
Alcohol consumption on a regular basis leads to a change in the brain’s neurochemicals. Once alcohol crosses the blood-brain barrier, it impacts neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin. Over time, a heightened tolerance leads to dependence or addiction since neurons in the central nervous system (CNS) respond less and less. When an addict quits cold turkey, the body tries to compensate for the previously depressed levels of neurochemicals and will flood the CNS, creating extremely high levels of serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters.
This can be a huge shock to the system, creating issues such as vomiting, dehydration, and tachycardia (an elevated heart rate). Additionally, quitting cold turkey can cause delirium tremens (DTs) in heavy drinkers, which can lead to seizures within 12-48 hours after the last alcoholic drink. DTs result from the loss of stimulation of GABA-A receptor, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Excitatory responses from neurotransmitters like dopamine become less controlled.
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Some of the most telling symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are:
- Sweating (which might be profuse)
- Trembling hands or full-body shakiness
- Feeling anxious
- Elevated heart rate
- Disorientation or confusion
- Delirium Tremens (seizures)
Most of these symptoms tend to commonly occur within 12-48 hours after consuming the last alcoholic drink. However, some symptoms can begin as early as two hours after the last drink, and some symptoms can last for several weeks.
Delirium Tremens has an estimated fatality rate of somewhere between 1% and 5%. Seizure activity should be taken seriously, and if seizures do not subside, medical attention should be sought.
Typical Treatments For Alcohol Withdrawal
There is no hard-and-fast universal protocol for doctors to follow regarding how they treat withdrawal symptoms from alcohol. For moderate to severe cases of withdrawal, hospitals will generally use pharmacotherapy as the first step in treating symptoms. Barbiturates (such as phenobarbital) and benzodiazepines (like lorazepam) are both cross-tolerant with alcohol and are therefore viewed as ideal medication-based treatments for withdrawal symptoms.
Individuals suffering from withdrawals can receive inpatient treatment at a hospital or clinic or opt for outpatient treatment. Today, many cases of alcohol withdrawal are now treated on an outpatient basis. Outpatient treatments are considerably more cost-effective, and there is no statistical data to suggest that it is any less effective than inpatient treatment methods. Also, outpatient therapy is generally reserved for mild to moderate cases of withdrawal. The more chronic cases of alcohol abuse and withdrawal are often given inpatient treatment, resulting in higher medical costs since treatment is often more comprehensive.
Individuals with withdrawal symptoms should consider inpatient treatment options if:
- They have recently consumed heavy amounts of alcohol
- Have a prior record of serious withdrawal symptoms
- Have a prior record of experiencing seizures or Delirium Tremens (DTs) after quitting alcohol
- Have made multiple previous detoxification attempts
- Are pregnant
- Are already diagnosed with mental or physical illnesses
- Do not have a strong and reliable support system
Safe Alcohol Detox Programs Are Available
It is absolutely crucial that those who are dealing with withdrawals from alcohol receive proper treatment. Quitting cold turkey is a serious shock to the entire system and has mental and physical repercussions which, in the most extreme cases, can be fatal. Alcohol detox programs are available as a means to help prevent and treat long-lasting and damaging withdrawal symptoms.
Many milder cases of withdrawal are non-pharmacologically treated, meaning that the individual is not given any medication, only supportive care. While this is not a problem in most mild cases, complications can still arise that might lead to the individual needing to seek medical treatment. Many clinicians in detox programs will administer medications due to the concern that a patient who is not treated with these medications will experience neurotoxicity, making them more vulnerable to seizures and DTs at some point in the future.
While it is possible to safely detox from alcohol without entering into an inpatient program, there are many dangers of quitting alcohol cold turkey that could lead to the need for inpatient services (such as hospitalization). If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one quitting alcohol cold turkey, it is important to speak with a licensed clinician to determine the best course of treatment. Serious health hazards can be avoided if a guided step-by-step approach to quitting alcohol is followed.
At SOBA Recovery, we have a safe and comfortable medically supervised detox program. Give us a call today at (866) 547-6451 to set up a facility tour.