Can alcohol withdrawal kill you?

Yes, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal, especially for severe cases of alcohol dependence. But most serious problems that can kill you during alcohol withdrawal are preventable and can be managed. More here.

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Yes, alcohol withdrawal can result in death. However, death is usually caused by a primary disease process or events that accompany acute alcohol withdrawal. It is these complications, especially if the body is in very poor health, that can cause significant illness and death.

However, most cases of alcohol withdrawal are routine and can be treated in outpatient health care settings. In fact, fewer than 20% of people going through alcohol withdrawal require admission to an inpatient unit. When is alcohol withdrawal life threatening and what can you do about it? We review here.

When is alcohol withdrawal life threatening?

Most people experience mild to moderate alcohol withdrawal symptoms. It is generally the severe cases of alcohol dependence that lead to fatal consequences. In fact, there are some cases of alcohol withdrawal which require special medical attention and under no conditions should you consider cold turkey stopping drinking. These include conditions that could complicate the withdrawal process such as:

  1. co-occurring medical illness
  2. severe psychiatric disorders
  3. multiple past detoxification from alcohol
  4. past history of alcohol withdrawal seizures
  5. past history of delirium tremens (DTs)
  6. past history of severe withdrawal symptoms

Medical complications during alcohol withdrawal

Other medical complications can occur during alcohol withdrawal. If doctors suspect that you may experience any of the following complications, hospitalization and intensive care may be required.

  • cardiomyopathy (dilation of the heart with ineffective pumping)
  • encephalopathy (generalized impaired brain functioning)
  • gastrointestinal bleeding
  • hypoglycemia
  • infection(s)
  • liver failure
  • pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • undetected trauma

Reducing risk during alcohol withdrawal

The best thing to do if you are considering getting alcohol out of your body is to do so under medical supervision. Detox physicians and doctors that specialize in alcoholism treatment can use known protocols to decrease risk of complications or serious symptoms during withdrawal. Doctors not only maintain water and electrolyte balance and correct metabolic disturbances during detox but they can also administer medications to manage withdrawal symptoms. Common medications used during withdrawal from alcohol include:

  • adrenergic medications
  • antipsychotic medicines
  • antiseizure medications
  • benzodiazepines

Medical care is crucial if you have been drinking large amounts of alcohol for long periods of time. Keep in mind that death and disability may result from DTs or seizures without medical care. So, seek professional help any time that you would like to treat alcohol dependence, especially more severe cases.

Tips for alcohol withdrawal

If you are planning to go through an alcohol detoxification, be sure that you have a sober friend or loved one who can be a reliable support person. Emotional support is crucial during alcohol withdrawal, and will help you get over the most uncomfortable phases of withdrawal. Medications that help you stop drinking are available after you withdraw from alcohol and can help you manage mood disorders and cravings associated with alcohol use.

Reference sources: Alcohol withdrawal in older adults
NIAAA Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal protocol guidelines
Detoxification and substance abuse treatment: physical detoxification services for alcohol withdrawal
NIAAA: Complications of alcohol withdrawal 
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.


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  1. My. Husband had to go to jail so he had had to stop drinking 0it been 6 days without beers and he said last night he feel sick

  2. im a alcoholic and let me get a point stright if you carnt stop drink in the week even a few glassers a night a few times a week or 3/4 times out the week you got a problem maybe a small one that will end up being a big ones a trust me its a hole you carnt get out of especially if you have money maybe if you have not me id borrow money sell my stuff basically would have enough cans of san Miguel a night to drink every single day this is how good i was with hiding my drinking every day after 11 years of working for a company called westline distribution ltd after having enough of drinking i told my employer to was totally shocked cut a long story short they sacked me when they said they would help me doesnt matter now but after 20 odd years of drinking i just got rid of a sever infection second time on the same arm but i have bad exma driniking has cause this and i get sever anxiety last all day for weeks and month more when i walk depression stress yet the dwp and tribunal thinks it a good idea to put me in the work wrag group i should be in the surrport group how can i stop drinking when they tell me i fit for work and stupid job centre advisor,s argure with them and no more talking im putting you in this enough of me any more about drinking just ask if your going though this dont give up on the idea of the surport group im not giving up maybe think this look at what life you did have and could have once more im on my 4th week not drinking and there been a few times i though sod it but ive been at this point a few times less weeks maybe talking about the first every day you dont drink will become 6 mths then a year good luck every one

  3. I’m not an alcoholic myself, but my father is. I honestly don’t know what to do. I’m nineteen, and my grandparents (his parents) can’t handle him, so they shipped him off to me and my brother, who live in a different city from theirs. He’s to the point where he lies all the time and drinks both cosmetics and cleaning products, and already has liver problems and high cholesterol levels. I told my grandparents to commit him but they won’t because of their image, but I’m honestly worried I’m going to walk into his room and find a dead body, or getting call from someone telling me he’s dead. I don’t even know what to expect from sending this message, but I don’t know what to do.
    PS: I’m not financially stable, so I can’t commit him myself, or do anything about what’s going. My brother and I locked him at home once, but we live high up (over ten floors, with plastic screens on every window, very easy to cut) and what if he decides (consciously or not) to throw himself out?

    Whatever anyone can say, I’ll appreciate it. I just don’t know what to do. Thanks in advance.

    1. Hello Nina. I’m very sorry about what’s happening, your grandparents should be helping your father and he should be taking care of you…sometimes things don’t go as they are supposed to. But, alcoholism is a disease and like any disease, it needs to be treated. Without professional help, your father will probably continue to drink and may even become worse over time. Your grandparents HAVE to help out! It’s not fair to leave everything on your shoulders. Speak to them about finding the best course of actions for yours, your brother’s and your father’s sake. They might have given up on your dad, but now they are risking the lives of their grandchildren. I hope they can understand this!

      Stay strong until then. And don’t give up on your father either, he also must be very hurt inside to be drinking so much. Can you talk to a psychiatrist or a counselor to get your thoughts together and work things out?

  4. Hello David. Have you thought about going to a recovery clinic for some time and getting away from everything. You need to make the time to focus on your recovery process, sobriety, and health. It’s very unprofessional to say “Just Quit” and only people that don’t understand how addiction issues work will say that. But, drop the quilt and do whatever brings you good and keeps you moving forward.

  5. I’m 51 know well educated , by polar, & been drinking pretty much on a daily base, mostly beer, but for the last three years ,it’s been vodca, average ing about 2 5th a week, l screw up yes , & I did 6 days ago & my options are no alcohol at all or get the hell out, ( I went sober for 11\2 yrs. From 08 to 2010) had good insurance good Dr. Here I see a Dr. once a month & can’t see him 4 to weeks. They thank its no big thang
    Just quit , how to convince them it could be dangerous until I see my Dr. They won’t read no literature help

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