The risks of alcohol abuse are something many people underestimate, since social drinking is common and accepted. Many people who are classed as having alcohol use disorder do a lot of their drinking alone and hide their problem from their loved ones for a long time, so we often think of alcohol as a relatively benign substance and wonder why people can’t just stop their excessive drinking. In truth, quitting alcohol can be challenging, and someone who’s been drinking heavily for a long time could experience medical complications if they don’t get professional help during the process. It’s particularly important for those with pre-existing health conditions to seek advice before they try quitting alcohol cold turkey.
What Does Alcohol Abuse Do to the Body?
Alcohol is a toxin that can damage the liver, pancreas and heart when consumed in excess. Both binge drinking and long-term heavy use can cause negative effects. Chronic heavy drinkers may experience cirrhosis of the liver, fatty liver disease, pancreatitis or heart arrhythmias. They’re also at an increased risk of strokes and several other medical conditions. Fortunately, the human body is efficient at repairing itself, and those who stop drinking early enough can reverse a lot of the damage alcohol did to their organs.
The Challenges of Quitting Drinking
It’s easy for someone who’s never had an addiction to talk about quitting cold turkey. Indeed, this way of beating addictions can work for people who smoke cigarettes or enjoy other habit-forming substances. However, quitting cold turkey can be dangerous for those who have a chronic alcohol addiction. It’s important for an addict to have proper support, including medical attention, while going through the detox process.
Is Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey Safe?
Quitting alcohol is certainly a good idea, but doing so abruptly may be dangerous for some individuals. Moderate drinkers can usually cut back without dangerous side effects beyond their alcohol cravings.
However, someone who’s been drinking heavily for a long time is at a higher risk of life-threatening side effects and may require medical supervision during the withdrawal process. This doesn’t mean they’d be better off if they didn’t quit drinking. “Quitting can be done safely and is safer than continuing to drink heavily,” explains Dr. Richard Saitz at the Boston University School of Public Health.
What Happens During Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol acts as a depressant, slowing down the central nervous system. Over time, the body can adapt to the presence of alcohol. This is how people develop a tolerance for it and need more alcohol to feel drunk. During alcohol withdrawal, the body is still compensating for the presence of alcohol and the nervous system becomes hyperactive, causing withdrawal symptoms.
Common Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
The type and severity of withdrawal symptoms will depend on how much alcohol a person tended to drink and how long they’ve been drinking heavily. Some common symptoms include:
Sleep Disturbance and Restlessness
Alcohol can help a person fall asleep, but it reduces the quality of their sleep. When someone stops drinking, their hyperactive CNS may make it difficult for them to fall asleep and mean that when they do sleep, it’s restless and fitful. An elevated heart rate, excessive sweating and increased blood pressure are all common side effects and can contribute to poor sleep. Fortunately, in milder cases of withdrawal, these symptoms pass quickly.
Nausea and Vomiting
Long-term alcohol use causes damage to the stomach lining. However, drinking alcohol temporarily soothes that damaged stomach lining. When a person stops drinking alcohol cold turkey, they’ll likely feel nauseated and may struggle to hold down food. The stomach lining will repair itself over time, but these acute symptoms can be unpleasant.
When someone stops drinking alcohol, they may experience headaches and other related symptoms such as sensitivity to light. In some cases, the headaches are caused by dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. In others, it’s a symptom of the CNS struggling to adapt to the lack of alcohol. Proper hydration is essential during this time, and it may also help to spend time in a calm, quiet space.
One of the most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms is delirium tremens. This condition usually starts about three days into withdrawal, and the symptoms usually last just a few days. Mild delirium tremens symptoms can include:
In cases with severe symptoms, the sufferer may experience convulsions, seizures and other serious medical complications. Without medical intervention, these symptoms can have severe consequences, either in the form of lasting complications or death.
How to Quit Drinking Safely
A person whose drinking habits fall into the category of severe alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder should discuss their plans to stop drinking with medical professionals before they make any major changes to their lifestyle. Just as with drug abuse, alcohol dependence is a serious matter, and a supervised medical detox is required to reduce the risk of life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
Detox With Behavioral Health Centers
At Behavioral Health Centers, we offer support from trained addiction professionals and medical experts. Our detox center helps people on the path to lasting recovery. Through medical supervision, therapy and ongoing support groups, an alcoholic can learn to beat their addiction safely and not fall victim to the pitfalls that can push someone into a severe relapse. Beating alcohol addiction isn’t easy, but our treatment centers offer medical detox services that can help manage substance withdrawal symptoms.
Addiction treatment doesn’t end when the physical part of the alcohol detox is over. Many addicts find it’s easy enough to quit drinking in a controlled environment, surrounded by a support group and medical professionals. However, it’s important to address the underlying lifestyle and mental health factors that caused the alcohol misuse to begin. This is something that can be addressed through family therapy, groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and ongoing follow-up sessions at our treatment locations.
If you’d like to know more about how we can help you or someone you care for stop drinking safely and sustainably, contact us today to book a consultation.