Are There Any Risks With Alcohol Detox?

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People facing severe alcohol addiction may experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome, or dangerous or even life-threatening symptoms, if they stop drinking. Detoxing from alcohol under medical supervision can help ensure people’s safety and success during alcohol withdrawal.

Are There Any Risks With Alcohol Detox?

People engaging in heavy alcohol use, especially over a long period of time, may experience difficult and dangerous symptoms of alcohol withdrawal when they stop drinking.

Instead of quitting suddenly, people with severe alcohol use disorder (AUD) or heavy drinking habits should consult with their doctor about detox services that can help them avoid withdrawal symptoms like seizures.

Medical detoxification provides 24/7 supervision and access to treatment providers and medical care that can ensure safety and success when detoxing from heavy alcohol use.

Are There Any Risks With Alcohol Detox?

Although people with severe AUD may experience health risks such as seizures or hallucinations when they stop drinking, detoxing under medical supervision helps them avoid these risks.

One of the most serious potential consequences of alcohol dependence, or when the body becomes accustomed to the presence of alcohol in the system, is alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS).

AWS can occur when people with alcohol dependence or addiction suddenly stop drinking, removing the substance that the body has become accustomed to.

The sometimes life-threatening symptoms of AWS include:

  • delirium tremens (DTs)
  • alcohol withdrawal seizures
  • mental health problems

Among people who experience acute alcohol withdrawal, or the first phase of withdrawal, about 5% to 10% have serious symptoms such as these.

Medical detox helps avoid these and other acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms through round-the-clock supervision, care, and support from medical professionals.

Delirium Tremens

DTs is characterized by a hyperactive autonomic nervous system, which accounts for symptoms such as sweating, high blood pressure, and rapid heart rate, as well as hallucinations and disorientation.

This sometimes life-threatening medical condition usually occurs one to four days after the person’s last drink and can intensify at four to five days. Among people who experience DTs, as many as 5% to 25% die.

DTs usually only occurs in people who have engaged in heavy alcohol consumption for several years and who have quit drinking suddenly (“cold turkey”).

Risk factors for DTs include prior withdrawal episodes, prior seizures, prior episodes of DTs, and intense cravings for alcohol.

Other risk factors may include elevated liver enzymes and central nervous system problems such as poor motor coordination.

Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures

Alcohol-related seizures that result from the withdrawal process usually happen within two days of the person’s last drink.

Seizures of this kind typically are generalized, consisting of convulsions and muscle contractions. Risk factors for withdrawal seizures include previous withdrawal episodes and previous episodes of alcohol-related seizures.

Research suggests that alcohol affects long-term changes to the central nervous system, making the brain more excitable.

Mental Health Problems

People who suddenly stop heavy alcohol consumption after months or years may face mental health complications as a result of acute withdrawal.

These complications may require the help of psychiatry or other medical interventions.


Anxiety is a common symptom of alcohol withdrawal. Some people develop AUD after self-medicating an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. When they stop drinking, anxiety symptoms return.

Research also shows that repeated past episodes of withdrawal predispose people to anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety usually occur within the first two days and include:

  • rapid breathing
  • dizziness
  • heart palpitations
  • sweating

Problems Sleeping

Some people experiencing acute withdrawal have problems sleeping.

Sleep disturbances may come in the form of:

  • insomnia
  • restlessness
  • waking up several times in the night
  • night terrors

People withdrawing from alcohol also often experience a higher incidence of interrupted breathing, with accompanying sleepiness during the day as a result.


About 3% to 10% of people in alcohol detox experience hallucinations. These include auditory, tactile, and visual hallucinations, the onset of which can happen as long as seven days after the last drink.

People can experience hallucinations that are not associated with DTs. This is more common in those who are younger, engage in polysubstance abuse, and drink heavily.


The onset of depression is typically associated with long-term alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Experts aren’t sure why some people in recovery from alcohol addiction experience depression. However, if you or a loved one is experiencing depression, seeking help is important as a risk of suicide is associated with this mental health condition.

Other Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Most people who go through acute alcohol withdrawal experience uncomfortable symptoms, but these symptoms are not life-threatening.

Typical alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • anxiety
  • restlessness
  • insomnia
  • nausea
  • tremors
  • low-grade fever
  • sweating
  • fast breathing
  • rapid heart rate

Monitoring For Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Treatment providers may also be able to identify and treat Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which can occur in people with heavy alcohol consumption that has caused a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency.

Symptoms of thiamine deficiency include:

  • ataxia (lack of coordination)
  • delirium
  • paralysis of eye muscles
  • impaired cognition

Significant memory problems can also develop. Other long-term effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome include persistent ataxia and an abnormal gaze due to damage to eye muscles.

If left untreated, about 5% of people with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome die after experiencing a coma.

How To Avoid The Risks Of Alcohol Withdrawal

You can mitigate the risks of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms by enrolling in an alcohol detox program.

By beginning alcohol addiction treatment under medical supervision at a qualified treatment facility, you will receive the care and support you need to make it through withdrawal safely and successfully.

Alcohol detox programs can give clients medications to help with the process, including:

Your care team will also make sure that you are not experiencing vitamin or mineral deficiencies, dehydration, or other complications.

They will also introduce you to the next step in treatment, which is typically an inpatient or outpatient treatment program involving behavioral therapy and other support.

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