Alcohol Detox Side Effects: Am I Really Going to Die If I Detox Alone?

Alcohol Detox Side Effects Can You Die From Alcohol Detox - Fight Addiction Now

Alcoholics know that if they go too long without having a drink, they’ll be hit with some seriously unpleasant side effects. However, far fewer realize that if their dependence on alcohol is strong enough, trying to quit cold turkey can be deadly.

The risk of death during alcohol withdrawal is very real. In fact, withdrawal is more dangerous with alcohol than any other drug of abuse, including both heroin and methamphetamine. So, if you’re asking the question, “Can you die from alcohol detox?” know that the answer is an emphatic yes.

Going through alcohol detox at home without medical support greatly increases the risk of potentially lethal complications and long-term health issues. By entering a medically assisted alcohol detox program, patients can get the help they need in a safe and controlled environment.

What Is Alcohol Detox?

Alcohol detox is the process of purging all of the toxins from the body that have accumulated through the abuse of alcohol. The symptoms of alcohol detoxification can range from mild to severe, depending on variables like age, medical history and level of alcohol dependence.

Individuals with a history of prolonged and heavy alcohol abuse are at the greatest risk for serious complications and should seek help at a certificated detox facility.

The Importance of Medically Assisted Detox

Although many people assume that the only goal of medically assisted alcohol detox is to provide patients with rapid treatment of their physical withdrawal symptoms, there are actually a number of important reasons to consider medically supervised alcohol detox.

The benefits of medically assisted detox include:

Stable Environment

Patients entering a substance abuse detox facility are usually in a state of both emotional and physical turmoil. Before the process of detoxification begins, patients need to feel as calm and comfortable as possible. The stable environment of a medical detox facility can help put the patient’s mind at ease, which is crucial for completing detox successfully.

Around-the-Clock Medical Supervision

It’s important that patients have medical help close at hand during the detoxification process. At a medically assisted detox center, physicians can intervene immediately to treat any unwelcome side effects of withdrawal.

Doctors can also screen patients for preexisting medical conditions. If left untreated, co-occurring medical issues can lead to severe complications during detox.

Effective When Combined with Psychological Treatment

The top priority of any alcohol detox program is managing a patient’s physical health, but it’s important to address the patient’s mental health as well. Emotional counseling during detox greatly reduces the risk of relapse and helps to set the stage for a lifetime of sobriety.

Medications that May Be Used During Detox

Depending on a patient’s level of alcohol dependence, physicians may prescribe medications to combat alcohol withdrawal symptoms while detoxing. Benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax are commonly used during withdrawal to ease symptoms and prevent withdrawal-induced seizures.

However, those medications are becoming less and less popular for treating alcohol withdrawal, as they are highly addictive in their own right. Doctors are instead turning to non-addictive anti-seizure drugs, such as Dilantin, Tegretol and Neurontin.

Other drugs a doctor might prescribe to prevent relapse during alcohol detox include:


Sold under the brand name Vivitrol, naltrexone can block the effects of alcohol on the brain. It’s much easier to fight the urge to drink when alcohol no longer provides a pleasurable buzz, which is why naltrexone works so well for maintaining long-term sobriety.


The medication disulfiram is essentially the opposite of an addictive drug: If a patient drinks alcohol while taking disulfiram, they will experience an instant hangover, as their body won’t be able to break down the acetaldehyde in their blood.


Marketed under the brand name Campral, acamprosate helps to treat the chemical imbalances in the brain that result from alcoholism, allowing patients to work toward sobriety with a clearer mind.

The Stages of Alcohol Detox

There are three stages of detoxification from alcohol, with the first withdrawal symptoms appearing anywhere between six and 24 hours after having the last drink. Click on any of the following stages to learn more:

Stage 1 Detox

The first stage of alcohol detox side effects usually begins around eight hours after the last drink. Symptoms of stage one alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Heart palpitations
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting

This is usually how a severe alcoholic feels after waking up in the morning. Their relief only comes after downing the first drink of the day. Patients at an alcohol detox facility, however, move on to the second stage of detox.

Stage 2 Detox

In addition to many of the same symptoms one might experience during the first stage of alcohol withdrawal, the symptoms of stage two withdrawal include:

  • Increased blood pressure and body temperature
  • Mental confusion
  • Quick or shallow breathing
  • Anxiety and irritability

Stage two symptoms set in around 24 hours after the last drink. Depending on the patient’s level of alcohol dependence, the symptoms can last from anywhere from one to three days.

Stage 3 Detox

This stage of alcohol detox is the most dangerous time for patients, with potential symptoms including:

  • Hallucinations
  • Restlessness
  • Severe trembling
  • Delirium tremens

If you’re going through this stage of alcohol detox, hopefully you’re receiving medical supervision as it happens. Why? Delirium tremens can be deadly if left untreated. These symptoms are much too severe to try to face on one’s own at home.

Alcohol Detox Side Effects: Delirium Tremens

Delirium tremens (the DTs) is the reason why the alcohol detox death rate is so high. In fact, an estimated 5 percent of people who get the DTs die as a result. If left untreated, the DTs can also lead to the persistent alcohol withdrawal syndrome known as “PAWS.” This is a condition involving recurrent alcohol withdrawal symptoms years after the person has finished detoxing.

Not everyone who goes through alcohol withdrawal will experience the DTs. The National Institutes of Health has reported that delirium tremens are most common in long-term, heavy drinkers. This group is defined as those who drink on average at least eight drinks a day over a period of several years.

The symptoms of delirium tremens typically develop two to three days after a person’s last drink and reach peak intensity by day five. In some cases, however, more than a week may pass before symptoms develop.

Symptoms of delirium tremens include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Fever
  • Vivid nightmares
  • Disorientation
  • Seizures
  • Visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations

One particularly disturbing side effect of delirium tremens is the sensation of having small insects crawling either across or just under one’s skin. This condition is known as formication and has been known to trigger long-term psychological problems.

Never underestimate the risk of developing delirium tremens during withdrawal. For severe alcoholics, medically assisted detox is the only way to safely make it through the process of acute withdrawal.

Is Medically Assisted Detox Right for You?

Alcohol Detox Death Rate Seizure Delirium Tremens Stat - Fight Addiction NowIf you feel that your drinking has gotten out of control, or if you experience any of the withdrawal symptoms discussed in this article, it’s best to seek professional help before beginning the process of alcohol detoxification.

Overcoming an addiction to alcohol is not just a matter of mustering up the willpower to go cold turkey. Alcohol withdrawal is serious business, and trying to go it alone can be deadly.

Even if you have a less-severe case of alcoholism, you should still look for a medically supervised detox program. Serious complications can arise at any time, and it’s possible for the stress of withdrawal to trigger an undiagnosed co-occurring disorder. And for many, the intense alcohol cravings and various physical discomforts experienced during detox are simply too much to handle alone.

Beating an addiction to alcohol is hard enough, as is trying to be your own doctor at the same time. If you’re serious about achieving a life of sobriety, there’s no safer way to begin your journey than with medically assisted detox. See our alcohol addiction fact sheet, or take an online quiz to gauge if you’re actually addicted to alcohol.

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