What Happens When a Severe Alcoholic Goes Cold Turkey?
Alcoholism can be a deadly disease, and it can be particularly deadly if a severe alcoholic attempts to stop drinking cold turkey. Alcohol is a drug that is addictive both mentally and physically. If an individual has been physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol for some time, quitting cold turkey can be extremely dangerous and can even be fatal. For this reason, a person should never attempt to quit drinking alcohol cold turkey.
Since alcohol is a legal substance, many people find it surprising to learn that if they are in the habit of drinking heavily, they can’t simply quit any time they want. Discontinuing the use of alcohol abruptly can cause the body to experience extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, and can include seizures, hallucinations and possibly even death.
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Why Do People Experience Withdrawal Symptoms When They Quit Drinking?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It slows brain function and the way nerves work, which is why people may feel like it calms them down and relieves feelings of agitation and anxiety. When an individual drinks to excess, this depressant effect can cause them to experience slurred speech, declining ability to concentrate and a reduced ability to think clearly.
The more heavily and frequently they drink, the more difficult it is for their body to adjust to no longer having this depressant in their system. Their brain becomes out of balance and hyperactive. Their heart rate and body temperature rise, and they experience withdrawal symptoms.
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
If an individual is physically dependent on alcohol, they are likely to begin to experience overpowering withdrawal symptoms within a few hours of the last drink. Withdrawal symptoms include:
- Nervousness or agitation
- Mood swings
- Tremor of the hands
- Shaky, clammy skin
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
A person who has been drinking heavily on a long-term basis who quits alcohol abruptly may experience even more serious withdrawal symptoms. Quitting cold turkey may lead to a very serious form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens, or the DTs. This form of withdrawal is a medical emergency, and it has a high mortality rate.
Symptoms of delirium tremens usually develop one to four days after withdrawal begins. These symptoms may include:
- High fever
- Hallucinations, which includes seeing or hearing things that aren’t there
- Sense of impending doom
- Deep sleep
A person who has DTs is at risk of physical injury during seizures. Other complications may develop, such as a reduced ability of the pancreas to produce insulin or cardiac problems, which could lead to sudden death. Low phosphate levels can cause the alcoholic to stop breathing, experience muscle weakness or go into a coma.
Medical Supervision During Withdrawal
Because of the possibility of severe or even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms during withdrawal from alcohol, a person who has been drinking habitually should go to an inpatient rehabilitation center for professional supervision and assistance during detoxification. This is especially important if there has been long-term alcohol abuse or previous experiences with DTs.
In an impatient treatment facility, medical professionals can monitor withdrawal symptoms and ease their intensity. A severe alcoholic is able to be in a safe place where there is no temptation or opportunity to pick up alcohol to reverse withdrawal symptoms.
Once the worst phase of withdrawal has passed, the alcoholic is able to obtain support and intervention for cravings and any physical or emotional symptoms that occur in the early days and weeks of recovery. Trying to go cold turkey is never a good idea. It’s possible to recover from severe alcoholism, and successful long-term recovery is more likely when treatment is obtained in a safe and supportive environment.
Since 2004, Lori has worked with the behavioral health treatment community to bring awareness about mental health disorders and evidence-based treatments. Lori strives to help people better understand mental illness and provide support to those needing help and their families. As a mental health advocate, Lori works to be a voice for those suffering from substance abuse, dual diagnosis, borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, trauma, or any other disorder.