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Dangers of Stopping Alcohol Cold Turkey

Jennifer Bembry Sep 28, 2019
When someone has had enough of the consequences caused by alcohol dependency, they may decide to just say no to alcohol, to abruptly stop drinking, also known as stopping "cold turkey." When it comes to alcoholism, stopping cold turkey can have devastating health effects, even death.
No one who is addicted to alcohol should ever attempt to stop cold turkey. When one is ready to commit to sobriety they should have a plan in place to undergo a medical detox where a trained detox nurse can monitor withdrawals and respond to any medical issues swiftly.

About Alcohol Dependency

Human body is amazing in its ability to adapt. When exposure to alcohol consumption causes imbalance in brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, the brain begins to adapt to these changes. Alcohol increases dopamine and GABA levels which initially give drinker, the desired sense of well being.
Over time, as the brain continues to adjust to alcohol, dependency can take over. It begins as increased tolerance to alcohol effects like impaired psychical coordination, drowsiness, feelings of euphoria and confidence, requiring more alcohol to achieve the effects.
Alcohol dependency becomes a cycle. Intense cravings make the person drink more alcohol, causing nutritional deficiencies like thiamine deficiency, mental confusion, malnutrition, memory reduction.
As the brain starts relying more on alcohol to maintain the new brain chemistry, the developing alcohol dependency can cause the dopamine and GABA levels to suddenly drop if alcohol is withdrawn, causing physical and mental withdrawal symptoms.
Physical and mental effects of alcohol dependency can get severe with prolonged alcohol abuse. Alcoholism, a chronic relapsing disease, if not treated, can cause death. Alcohol abuse impacts all body systems, including liver's functionality.
Other long-term effects may include increased risk of mouth, throat, esophageal, colon, breast, or liver cancers, high blood pressure, dementia, irregular heartbeat, and digestive problems.

What Happens When You Stop Drinking?

Stopping alcohol cold turkey should never be attempted without medical supervision. The withdrawal symptoms are so severe that, without medical and emotional support, the person will simply give up and return to drinking to relieve the discomfort.
So, trying to home detox will rarely be completed successfully. Either the person will concede to the pains and return to drinking or a serious health emergency including suicidal idea can occur.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms will vary depending on acuity of alcohol problem. Approximately 50% of those with a mild to moderate alcohol use disorder may experience symptoms including:
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Clammy skin
  • Profuse Sweating
  • Profound fatigue
  • Muscle Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Mood Swings
  • Anxiety
As alcohol dehydrates the body, one potential withdrawal responses is electrolyte imbalance due to dehydration. This can cause confusion and impair the functions of central nervous system. 3%-5% people detoxing from alcohol experience a medical emergency called delirium tremens (DTs).
The DTs may not appear until third day of detox, catching the person completely off guard, thus DTs are so dangerous. DTs can cause grand mal seizures or convulsions, delirium, hallucinations. hypertension, very high fever, cardiac arrhythmia and hyperthermia, leading to death.

Why is Medical Detox Necessary?

A medical detox involves detoxification supervised by a physician, usually an addiction specialist and supported by a trained detox nurse throughout the process. A supervised detox allows one to stop drinking while being monitored by health professional.
Withdrawal symptoms will be observed and medication prescribed as needed over the entire detox phase. An IV can hydrate the individual or provide essential nutrients and vitamins to help replenish and restore electrolyte imbalance.
In addition to medical support, a detox team is trained to provide emotional support needed for what will be involved in taking the step to get sober. Detox is only the first step of recovery. It helps to have someone to talk, discuss feelings, fears, concerns about treatment and recovery.

How Are Withdrawal Symptoms Managed?

Remember, no matter how difficult alcohol detox might be, it is usually over within a week, depending on the history and severity of alcoholism. Withdrawals typically commence about eight hours after the last drink, and peak on days 2-3. The risk of severe withdrawal symptoms is still present until day 5 and symptoms to subside.
Some psychological symptoms will persist, sometimes for months, after detox and withdrawal. These may be depression, anxiety, insomnia, alcohol cravings. During detox the physician and detox nurse will give all medical interventions to mitigate much of the discomfort caused.
Most alcohol detox involves using benzodiazepine, such as Ativan or Valium, to help reduce the potential for seizure, as well as aiding sleep. Over-the-counter medications can help with gastrointestinal distress and headache.
One of the biggest challenges in detox is controlling alcohol cravings. Naltrexone (brans Revia or Vivitrol) is a synthetic opioid used to help reduce alcohol cravings by blocking opioid receptors in the brain, which thwarts the endorphin-medicated reinforcing effects of alcohol.
Naltrexone has been shown to significantly reduce relapse. Though the usual prescription for naltrexone is three months, increasingly it is found that people benefit most if they remain on naltrexone for several months until recovery has stabilized.

About the Author

Jennifer Bembry is founder of Kinkaid Private Care, a full service concierge private nursing and healthcare management service provider that specializes in at-home medical detox. As an R.N, Jennifer has a lengthy resume of experience in treating the critically ill, cancer patients, and end-of-life hospice patients.