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How Mild Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Can Become Serious

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

If you have spent a moderate amount of time reading the information here on our website, you have probably come across multiple statements suggesting that detoxing from alcohol is considered a medical emergency by doctors and nurses. There is a very good reason for this. Alcohol withdrawal includes a set of withdrawal symptoms that, in most cases, are relatively mild compared to other drugs. But those withdrawal symptoms can quickly become severe enough to cause injury or death. In this sense, alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to detox from.

So how do mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms become serious? The quick progression is the result of the body overreacting to the withdrawal process. We will discuss this in detail in just a moment. But first, let us look at the most common withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol detox. These are:

  • Physical – Physical symptoms often include excessive sweating, headaches, mild tremors (also known as the 'shakes'), nausea, vomiting, and increased heart rate and body temperature. The duration of the symptoms depends on how the individual responds to withdrawal.
  • Psychological/Emotional – Because there are psychological and emotional aspects of alcohol addiction, there are also corresponding withdrawal symptoms. These include anxiety, feelings of nervousness and anxiousness, mild hallucinations, and psychological cravings. In rare cases, temporary and mild depression may also occur.

All of the symptoms are a direct result of the body having to readjust to less alcohol in the system. What must be understood is that a body subject to alcohol dependence must work much harder to maintain normal function. That means it is producing extra chemicals, working harder to generate more energy, and doing everything in its power to negate the natural sedative effect of alcohol. When alcohol is taken away, it takes a while for the body to settle back down. Withdrawal symptoms occur in the interim.

Delirium Tremens: A Dangerous Complication

As for mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms suddenly becoming serious, the issue can be encapsulated in two words: delirium tremens. This rather serious complication takes its name from the two most notable symptoms: hallucinations (delirium) and seizures/convulsions (tremors). It is a condition experienced by roughly 5% of all alcoholics who undergo withdrawal.

Previously we explained how the body has to work extra hard to overcome the effects of alcohol. Try to think of it in terms of fighting a fire. Firefighters will pour tens of thousands of gallons of water onto a fire just to keep it contained. They keep feeding the water until the fire eventually goes out. But they do not stop there; they keep pouring water onto the debris until they are absolutely sure every last ember has been doused. This is similar to what happens during alcohol withdrawal.

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As the level of alcohol in the system drops off, the body does not immediately compensate. It continues to work as hard as ever under the assumption that more alcohol will be forthcoming. This is what causes the withdrawal symptoms. In the case of delirium tremens, the body overreacts. It works even harder as alcohol levels drop, producing dangerous symptoms that include:

  • auditory, visual, and tactile hallucinations
  • rapid heart rate and high body temperature
  • serious seizures and tremors.

The hallucinations experienced by someone in withdrawal can cause that person to engage in behaviour that is potentially life-threatening. Seizures can cause serious falls that result in head and other injuries. As for the rapid heart rate and high body temperature, these can lead to cardiac arrest and death.

As long as mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms remain mild, detox can be managed relatively easily. With some prescription medications and the comfort of a skilled doctor or nurse, most recovering alcoholics can complete detox without complications in 7 to 10 days. Things are entirely different when withdrawal symptoms become severe.

You Need Professional Treatment

The point of explaining how mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms can become serious is not to frighten you. Rather, it is to instruct you about the importance of getting professional help. Attempting to detox at home, without any medical supervision whatsoever, is just not a smart idea. It could lead to consequences you and your family may regret.

An additional problem to recognise here is that no one knows if and when delirium tremens will strike. There is no rhyme or reason to the condition; most people never experience it while those who do find themselves in serious jeopardy. You could be progressing through detox fairly well with what appear to be mild withdrawal symptoms, only to progress to a serious medical condition in a very short amount of time. Then you may not have enough time to get to hospital before serious injury or death occurs.

Hopefully, we have your attention with all of this information. Now let us talk about treatment. Proven treatments for alcohol abuse and dependence are provided by private rehab clinics and other service providers all over the UK. Services are plentiful enough that we should have no problem finding a good treatment programme in your local area. Connecting those in need with available treatments is our speciality; we want to help you.

When you contact us on our 24-hour helpline, we will:

  • explain the signs and symptoms of alcohol dependence
  • assess your circumstances to determine the level of your problem
  • go through the list of available treatments in your local area
  • make our recommendations as to the most appropriate treatment for you
  • answer any question you might have about location, cost, etc.
  • provide a referral to the treatment centre of your choice.

We are not here to pass judgement on you or lecture you about your alcohol problem. We are here to provide a listening ear and the first line of assistance you need to start your journey of recovery. As an independent referral service, we to have no vested interest in any one particular rehab programme or clinic. This gives us the freedom to find and recommend what appears to be best for you based on your circumstances.

Call us and put us to the test. Let us show you that we can connect you with a treatment programme that will help you beat your alcohol problem. And whatever you do, always remember that mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms can easily become serious. Do not try to do this alone.

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