There are two kinds of withdrawal that can be fatal — alcohol and anti-anxiety medications like Xanax. When it comes to alcohol, withdrawal is particularly dangerous for heavy drinkers so if you or a loved one is a heavy drinker who is considering quitting, it’s very important to use a medical detox.
- Men: Drinking more than 7 drinks per day or 14 drinks a week.
- Women: Drinking more than 3 drinks per day or 7 drinks a week.
Why are heavy drinkers at risk: Regularly high amounts of alcohol cause the brain to re-adjust its own chemistry. When alcohol is withdrawn, it must adjust again — which is what causes withdrawal (more on that below). Because the brain doesn’t function correctly in these adjustment periods, alcohol withdrawal can kill you if your body is used to high amounts or if you stop drinking all at once AKA “cold turkey.”
- Alcohol cravings
- The shakes
- Feeling anxious
- Feeling depressed
- Vomiting or nausea
- Low energy
- Nightmares or fever dreams
- Delirium tremens (DTs)
These symptoms and risks exist on a spectrum created by a person’s drinking habits and how they quit. Heavy drinkers who quit cold turkeys will have more symptoms and risks whereas someone with a more mild habit may only experience a handful of common symptoms. But anyone trying to quit alcohol will benefit from a medical detox where doctors use special medications to decrease the symptoms and risks of the process.
How Can Alcohol Withdrawal Kill You?
Alcohol withdrawal can kill someone due to the effects of Delerium Tremens and seizures, which include:
- Loss of consciousness in dangerous situations.
- Breathing failure.
- Brain death from severe fever.
- Heart failure.
The Science of Alcohol Withdrawal Deaths:
In order to understand why this happens during alcohol withdrawal, it’s first necessary to understand a little bit about what alcohol does to the brain. In a nutshell, alcohol creates excess GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) which slows the brain down like brakes in a car. But our brains are built like self-correcting see-saws. If something disrupts its natural balance (known as homeostasis) it will try to correct it by counter-balancing.
In the case of alcohol, the brain stops producing its own GABA and makes more Glutamate — a chemical that speeds things up like a gas pedal. Now, when the person stops drinking their brain has no way to slow down. And due to the excessive gas-pedal Glutamate, the result is the same as red-lining a car’s engine for too long — it overheats (fever), shorts out (seizures), or breaks (heart failure).
Fatal Seizures in Alcohol Withdrawal:
When there is too much activity in the brain, it increases the risk of overloading certain regions. If this happens, those affected regions short out like an electrical outlet with too many plugs and stop working. As those regions restart the person has a seizure. The more areas affected, the worse the seizure is. For someone in alcohol withdrawal, activity is so massive that it can shut down several brain areas and produce a potentially fatal full-body “grand mal” seizure.
Cause of Death From Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures:
- The person will lose consciousness. If they are driving, swimming, operating machinery, crossing the street, or are high up when this happens it can be deadly for them and possibly others.
- They will collapse without any ability to break their fall. This can cause serious injury or be fatal if they fall into something or hit their head on something sharp when they fall. Since head wounds bleed quickly, the person could experience life-threatening blood loss while they are unconscious.
- Even with no head injury, they may stop breathing while they are unconscious and never wake up.
Alcohol Withdrawal & DTs:
Delerium Tremens (or “DTs”) begins about 2-3 days after the last drink. The high amount of gas-pedal glutamate plus the absence of GABA forces the brain and body into a potentially fatal overdrive. Put simply — just like any machine — the brain and body give out after running too fast, too hot, or too much for too long.
Cause of Death from Alcohol DTs:
- The heart beats too fast and stops.
- The brain boils from severe fever.
- Seizures stop someone’s breathing.
- Seizures constrict their airways until they suffocate.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Rapid breathing or trouble catching your breath.
- Trouble sleeping.
- High blood pressure.
- Hallucinations and confusion.