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While The Long Term Effects of Alcohol are Dangerous, Withdrawal Can Be Deadly

Medically Reviewed By: Benjamin Caleb Williams RN, BA, CEN

Written By: Gary Bowers

Article Updated: 09/14/2020

Number of References: 7 Sources

Alcohol is one of the most widely abused substances in America today. Chronic alcoholism is extremely harmful to both the physical and mental health of drinkers, but undergoing alcohol withdrawal poses its own unique risks. Unmonitored withdrawal can lead to seizures, brain damage, cardiac arrest, stroke, and death. Here, we will look at the risks of both long term drinking as well as alcohol withdrawal and illustrate the particular risks of each.

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Effects of Long-Term Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol use can produce distinct complications in both short- and long-term. The short term effects may produce issues which are not directly due to drinking, but from behaviors or impairments which result from inebriation. The long term consequences are more directly threatening, both to one’s mental and physical health.

The dangers of alcohol present themselves almost immediately after use. Even moderate use can cause short-term dangerous side effects such as:

  • Impaired Motor Function
  • Impaired Judgment
  • Blurred Vision
  • Diminished Reflexes
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Long-term alcohol use can cause major health complications including:

  • Cancer: Alcohol use is a primary cause of 6% of all cancers and 4% of cancer deaths in the United States.
  • Liver Disease and Cirrhosis of the Liver: Cirrhosis is the irreversible scarring of liver tissue. Cirrhosis can be fatal if untreated.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: AKA “Wet Brain”, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is actually two interlinked disorders derived from a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. Symptoms include, confusion, lack of coordination, and severe memory loss.
  • Cardiovascular Complications:
    —Hypertension (high blood pressure)
    —Cardiac Arrest
  • Neurological Complications:
    —Stroke
    —Nerve Damage (such as peripheral neuropathy)
    —Brain Damage
  • Malnutrition:
    —Vitamin B1 Deficiency
    —Magnesium Deficiency
  • Gastrointestinal Complications:
    —Ulcers
    —Gastritis (inflammation of the walls of the stomach)
    —Mallory Weiss Syndrome (a tear at the esophagus-stomach junction)
    —Pylorospasm (an involuntary and painful form of gagging or dry heave)
    —Esophageal Varices (abnormal or enlarged veins in the esophagus; these can bleed into the stomach)
  • Personal and Social Complications:
    —Troubles with Interpersonal Relationships
    —Employment Issues
    —Legal Issues
    —Sexual Dysfunction

Are You At Risk For Potentially Fatal Withdrawal?

There are many factors that can lead to fatal alcohol withdrawal symptoms, but there is no way to know or anticipate the exact reaction to removing alcohol from one’s system. Regardless of how long someone has been drinking, or what they drink, once the body has become dependent upon alcohol, removing or reducing daily alcohol intake can cause dangerous and deadly symptoms.

That said, there are some risk factors which can be indicators in the severity of alcohol withdrawal syndrome:

  • The Number of Drinks per Day – A “drink” of alcohol is defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol (NIAAA) as:
    —12 ounces of beer (5% ABV or similar)
    —5 ounces of wine (12% ABV or similar)
    —1.5 ounces of liquor (gin, vodka, whiskey, rum) (40% ABV or similar)
  • The Type of Alcohol Consumed: While dependency is possible regardless of the type of alcohol, someone who abuses alcohol is more likely to drink liquor or distilled spirits due to their higher alcohol content.
  • Genetic Factors: Age, gender, underlying medical conditions will all play a factor in how the body responds to changes to alcohol consumption.
  • History of Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol is harmful to the body and mind. Prolonged and regular use can erode physical and mental faculties which can play a critical role in the body’s response to alcohol cessation.

How Alcohol Withdrawal Can Kill You

Long-term alcohol use can lead to a physical dependency, wherein the body relies upon alcohol to function. Alcohol is a depressant, and when it enters the body, the brain is flooded in relaxing neurotransmitters while being starved of excitatory neurotransmitters. Over time the brain adapts to this state and fails to work properly without alcohol. At this point, removing alcohol from the system can cause a range of complications and lead to alcohol withdrawal syndrome, a potentially fatal disorder.

The most deadly effects of alcohol withdrawal syndrome are connected to the brain/body’s dependence on alcohol to regulate brain function. Some of the most serious symptoms include:

Seizures

Alcohol withdrawal seizures can occur 6-24 hours after the last drink of alcohol. They are the result of rapidly changing brain chemistry, and the subsequent neurological impacts. Seizures themselves can lead to other health complications if not recognized or treated quickly.

Delirium Tremens

Delirium Tremens (DTs) can occur in as little as 36 hours after the last drink of alcohol. This can often be fatal if not recognized or treated promptly. Symptoms of DTs include shaking, hallucinations, high blood pressure, severe confusion, and sweating.

Withdrawing Safely From Alcohol

Although dangers do exist when withdrawing (detoxing) from alcohol, the risks can be greatly reduced with the help of medical professionals, mental health professionals, and a strong desire to quit. Additionally, there are options when detoxing from alcohol, each of which carries its own benefits. Some safe options for safely detoxing from alcohol:

Alcohol Withdrawal Medications: There are a number of FDA-approved medications for treating alcoholism and alcohol withdrawal treatment options. Working with a general care doctor or practitioner can help you find the right medication for you. Some of the most commonly used medications include:

  • Benzodiazepines (benzos). Benzos can be prescribed to lessen withdrawal symptoms. These medications work as a calming agent, which helps address sleep disturbances, anxiety, and also have some anticonvulsant properties. For more information, take a look at our Benzodiazepines for Alcohol Withdrawal article.
  • Other medications can be prescribed to help treat issues relating to an alcohol use disorder. Acamprosate and naltrexone are used to relieve alcohol cravings. Disulfiram is used as an alcohol deterrent, which, when combined with alcohol creates very unpleasant side effects.

Tapering Off Alcohol: Alcohol consumption can be gradually reduced to zero, while managing withdrawal symptoms under the direction of a doctor in a self-care setting. Tapering is the practice of gradually reducing the amount of alcohol taken on a daily basis, which allows the body to adjust and respond in less dramatic ways.

Alcohol Detox: Entering an alcohol detox program is a very safe and secure approach to treating alcohol withdrawal. An alcohol detox facility will have medical monitoring as well as appropriate mental health interventions to address a wide range of issues related to an alcohol use disorder.

Finding Help

Alcoholism is a disease, and there are many treatment options available. Obtaining the best care will make the withdrawal and detox process as painless as possible, while also providing a wealth of resources for improving someones life. Pick up the phone, get on the computer, and reach out for help. Asking for help is the first step towards recovery and a new, better way of life.

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