Fatalities from alcohol detox are relatively rare, but they do occur. In July 2017, Nelsan Ellis, who played Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s True Blood, lost his life to heart failure when he tried to detox from alcohol at home, without medical supervision.
If you’ve developed a dependence on alcohol, you’ve probably experienced withdrawal symptoms when stopping or cutting down on drinking. While only 10 percent of people who detox from alcohol experience severe withdrawal—which has a mortality rate of 5 to 25 percent, according to the National Institutes of Health—detoxing from alcohol without medical supervision can quickly go wrong.1
The Most Common Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually set in within eight hours after the last drink, although they can begin up to several days later. Not everyone will experience all of the symptoms of withdrawal, and the symptoms can range in intensity from mild to severe. The most common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Anxiety, depression, irritability or mood swings
- Insomnia and nightmares
- Nausea and vomiting
These symptoms usually peak within 48 to 72 hours, but some symptoms can linger for weeks.
Severe Alcohol Withdrawal: Delirium Tremens
Delirium tremens, commonly known as DTs, is a severe form of withdrawal marked by dangerous shifts in heart rate and blood pressure and severe mental problems.2 Delirium tremens most commonly occurs in people who:
- Have a history of alcohol withdrawal
- Drink 4 to 5 pints of wine, 7 to 8 pints of beer, or one pint of hard alcohol each day for several months
- Have used alcohol for more than 10 years
Delirium tremens most often occurs within 48 to 96 hours after the last drink, but it can set in up to 10 days later. Symptoms typically worsen very quickly and include:
- Sudden, severe confusion
- Body tremors
- Agitation, fear or swift mood changes
- Chest pain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Blood infections
The symptoms of DTs can be life-threatening.
Medical Detox from Alcohol Is Essential
Medical detox through a high-quality treatment program is supervised by medical professionals who administer medications as needed to reduce the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal and prevent or treat severe withdrawal.
Even if alcohol detox isn’t particularly dangerous for an individual, the symptoms can be excruciating, and they can lead right back to using if only to make the discomfort stop.3 Medical detox improves your chances of successful detox by treating the symptoms and reducing discomfort. If you develop severe withdrawal symptoms, medical detox can save your life.
Why People Don’t Seek Help for Alcohol Detox
Nathan Ellis’s family released a statement about his death to the Hollywood Reporter in hopes of helping others who may be struggling with an alcohol addiction. The statement explained that Ellis was deeply ashamed of his addiction and chose to detox privately, on his own. He developed a blood infection, and his kidneys shut down. His liver swelled, and his blood pressure fell dangerously low as his heartbeat raced. He succumbed to his symptoms after four days in the hospital.
Ellis isn’t alone. While more than 17.5 million Americans struggle with alcohol addiction and dependence, fewer than 10 percent get the help they need to recover. One big reason for that is shame. Addiction has long been stigmatized, but great strides are being made to help people understand that addiction is widely regarded as a disease that requires medical treatment to overcome.
If you struggle with alcohol addiction and dependence, a high-quality treatment program is essential for safe detox and for helping you develop the skills you need to end the addiction for the long-term. Treatment works, and it can work for you.