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Dangers Of At Home Alcohol Detoxification

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

Written By: Phillippe Greenough

Article Updated: 11/22/2021

Number of References: 3 Sources

The first thing that needs to be said about detoxing from alcohol at home is that this is absolutely unsafe and potentially fatal. Alcohol is one of the few drug withdrawal syndromes which can kill. The neurotransmitter imbalances that the brain experiences can lead to life-threatening issues which include stroke, heart attack, brain damage, and death. In addition to the serious health risks, attempting to detox at home will also result in far more discomfort. There are many medications that are commonly used during medical detox that isn’t easily available outside of a facility. These medications can decrease the discomfort experienced, as well as reduce the dangers and risks greatly. Finally, if any complications were to occur, these detox facilities are properly equipped to deal with them in the manner possible.

In This Article:

It's Very Uncomfortable

Even if someone is not addicted to the point where it poses a risk to their life or health, the pain and discomfort of alcohol withdrawal can be awful. Shakes, sweats, nausea, hallucinations, anxiety, delirium, and insomnia are just a few of the issues which heavy drinkers can look forward to experiencing if they try to quit alcohol cold turkey.

Alcohol detox medications and medical supervision can help manage the severity of these symptoms. If they can be kept in check, someone has a much better chance of making it through acute withdrawal and moving forward with their recovery. Aside from medications to calm the hyperactive symptoms, some treatments can be used to help the body handle the symptoms to the best of its ability. Sleep aids, IV fluids, and vitamin supplements can possibly reduce the symptoms, and they may help speed up the body’s recovery.

For many people withdrawing from alcohol, depression and anxiety are increased significantly both during and especially after, one stops drinking suddenly. Without psychiatric support, dangerous circumstances are created not only for someone’s chances of recovery but often to their mental health and maybe even their life as well.As for the long-term mental health of a recovering alcoholic, there is often a period known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome where symptoms will linger for many months. Without medication and counseling to manage this, the quality of life of a recovering addict will certainly decline and there is also an increased risk of relapse.

Immediate Dangers of Self-Detox from Alcohol

When someone who has developed a physical dependence on alcohol stops drinking suddenly, the body and brain are under extreme stress due to chemical imbalances which result in a wide range of physical symptoms. Even if these do not result in death, they can easily lead to situations where someone is unable to get help or is so confused and disoriented that they make a fatal mistake or injure others.

Some of the greatest and most common dangers of detoxing from alcohol at home include:

  • Heart Issues: Due to glutamate, norepinephrine, and GABA imbalances, the brain sends uncoordinated and erratic signals to the heart. This can lead to cardiac arrest, dangerous cardiac arrhythmias, and wild changes in blood pressure. Treatment can manage the symptoms and minimize the danger, but this requires medical help.
  • Stroke: Due to changes in blood pressure as well as blood vessel decay due to chronic alcohol use, the risks of stroke are greatly heightened during acute withdrawal. Risks can be monitored and managed by medical professionals, but left untreated it can be fatal.
  • Dehydration: Coupled with the other issues which may arise, dehydration can greatly increase the chances of a negative outcome. Most heavy drinkers are fairly dehydrated as is, but add in the constant heavy sweating from detox and the danger is elevated. This can result in severe electrolyte imbalances which can present unique risks.
  • Seizure: Due to neurotransmitter imbalances, seizures are a common symptom of acute withdrawal. If severe enough, these can escalate to status epilepticus which is indicative of brain damage.
  • Delirium Tremens: A very severe potential symptom that occurs in a minority of drinkers, DT’s are characterized by confusion, disorientation, intense hallucinations and delusions, disorganized or clouded thinking, and vital sign hyperactivity. Unstable heart rate and blood pressure will change even more wildly and thus the risk of stroke or heart complications increases during DTs. Left untreated, it has a 35% mortality rate. This means that over 1 in 3 people who go through delirium tremens without treatment will not survive.

The greatest danger in quitting alcohol without medical supervision is that simply put, it can kill you. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a serious condition that may result in multiple health issues, seizures, and death. Due to the changes the brain makes from the chronic presence of alcohol, the brain is suddenly unable to function properly without alcohol present.

Finally, delirium tremens is a condition unique to alcohol withdrawal. It is a comprehensive condition involving both the mind and body and is very dangerous – especially to those who detox at home. It is estimated that untreated delirium tremens has a mortality rate of 35% which is extraordinary. While delirium tremens is still extremely dangerous, modern medications and treatment available at alcohol detox centers will reduce the mortality rate to about 5%.

These risks can typically be managed with medication and medical supervision, but unmonitored they are a very real concern.

Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures: Causes, Signs & Symptoms

Long Term Risks of Detoxing At Home

The greatest risk of self-detox, other than death of course, is the issue of relapse. While studies vary in the exact numbers, it is certain that the relapse rates are much higher for those who detox from alcohol at home. Having access to support from medical, psychology, and psychiatry professionals will substantially increase the chances of successful recovery. A detox program is often the first introduction to recovery and can help them safely and comfortably endure withdrawal, and continue long term treatment.

There are also unique long term risks associated with detoxing from alcohol at home. These are mostly caused by the actual withdrawal process itself and are made much more severe by going “cold turkey” without medications to manage the symptoms.

Self-detoxing from alcohol increases the level of risks associated with each of the following:

  • Brain Damage: Due to seizures and the risk of delirium tremens, it is possible for hypoxic brain damage to result from detoxing at home The imbalances in GABA and glutamate, in particular, can also lead to glutamate excitotoxicity in the brain which will have long-lasting repercussions and could even produce permanent anxiety or depression disorders.
  • Kindling Process: While the exact mechanisms for this are unclear, it is known that repeated withdrawal produces more severe symptoms the next time. This risk may be minimized with medications, but self-detoxing is certain to make the next experience much worse.
  • Heart Disease: Due to chronic alcohol use the muscles of the heart become weak and thin. During the wild changes in heart rate and blood pressure during withdrawal, this puts immense strain on the heart, weakening it even further. Risks for heart disease among alcoholics are much higher than the rest of the population already, and the added stress increases this risk even further. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is one of the most common forms of alcohol-induced heart disease.
  • Metabolic Disorders: Both diabetes and pancreatitis are common among alcoholics, and the metabolic damage done through withdrawal makes this risk greater. Going through withdrawal at home produces changes and abnormalities in blood sugar, brain glucose metabolism, and insulin production. These will add to the already high risk of developing a metabolic disorder later in life.

While putting an exact number on this is difficult, a cohort study done by the VA and Stanford provides an effective illustration. This study looked at two groups, alcoholics who received treatment and alcoholics who were untreated over two milestones at 3 and 16 years. It was found that of those who were untreated, only 43% were still sober after 3 years. Of those that did receive treatment, 62% had stayed sober after 3 years. This shows that receiving treatment significantly increases someone’s chances of staying sober long term.

Furthermore, at the 16-year mark, this trend continued. Of those who were not treated but who were sober at 3 years, only 40% of them remained sober at 16 years. Of the group who did receive treatment and were sober at 3 years, 58% of them remained sober at the 16-year mark.

To summarize, the chances of successful long-term recovery are increased if someone reaches out for help and undergoes treatment.

The Safe Option

Lasting recovery requires support. This could be in the form of family, friends, others in recovery themselves, or trained treatment providers. Either way, quitting alcohol cold turkey is a lonely method and is unlikely to produce positive or long-term results. The care and support of others in recovery, doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, caseworkers, and support groups can make all the difference in the world.

Support while going through withdrawal is crucial to success. Aside from the direct risks, the first few days of detox pose the highest risk of relapse by far. Someone who is going the cold turkey route will probably be alone and will definitely be miserable. The prospect of ending the discomfort with just a single drink may look more and more appealing as the alcohol withdrawal symptoms intensify.

Having access to support from medically trained recovery professionals will substantially increase the chances of successful alcoholism treatment. Entering an alcohol detox center can provide access to resources that may not be available otherwise. This can help someone safely and comfortably endure withdrawal, and continue long-term treatment.

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