Addiction Misconceptions: Is Withdrawal Dangerous?

By: Heather Priest, RN

The short answer is… it depends. Yes, withdrawal from some substances can be dangerous and even deadly. Withdrawal from others can be extremely uncomfortable, painful, and traumatic, but not deadly.

Alcohol and Benzodiazepines

Over the last several years working as an addictions nurse, I have found that many people are completely unaware that both alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal (or “benzo” for short) can be deadly. Benzodiazepines are typically used to treat anxiety and include medications like Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan. These can be prescriptions or purchased on the street.

There is no specific formula for knowing how one person will experience alcohol or benzo withdrawal compared to the next. The higher the amount consumed per day increases risk as does longevity of the use. For example, if a person has been drinking a fifth of vodka a day for 10 years, they are at higher risk of severe withdrawal symptoms compared to someone who has been drinking three beers daily for three months. There is simply no guarantee that any individual is safe from experiencing dangerous withdrawal symptoms in any given situation.

There are multiple medical complications that can arise during withdrawal from alcohol or benzos.

First, alcohol withdrawal can cause seizures. While it is true that seizures are most often not deadly, if a person is alone and experiences a seizure, the seizure can last for so long that it can ultimately lead to death due to either lack of oxygen to brain damage, choking or head injury during the seizure.

Delirium tremens (often referred to as DTs) is another dangerous medical problem that can occur during alcohol withdrawal. Commonly mistaken for withdrawal tremors or shakes, delirium tremens is when an individual experiences significant confusion with agitation, hallucinations, dangerously high blood pressure or extreme fever. According to the National Institutes of Health, delirium tremens can be fatal in up to 37 percent of cases without medical treatment.

I don’t say this to scare you, but rather to stress the importance of medical detox at a facility such as Pine Rest’s detox unit to ensure a person’s safety throughout the withdrawal process. When a person arrives at our detox unit, a nurse is there to begin hearing their story and history. Then as soon as possible, they are given medications to treat and prevent withdrawal symptoms listed above. This does not mean the patient will go through detox symptom free, but it does mean that they are highly unlikely to experience any severe symptoms. In addition to their physical safety, they will receive genuine care and compassion by a staff highly trained in addiction, who will also provide support, knowledge, and resources to help begin their journey in recovery and sobriety.

Withdrawing from alcohol and benzodiazepines is indeed very dangerous if done alone at home without medical support. When at a detox facility such as Pine Rest’s Sub-Acute Detox, staff can ensure safety with continuous monitoring and symptom management to not only keep patients safe, but also as comfortable as possible.

Opiates and other Drugs

Withdrawal from opiates (heroin, fentanyl, pain pills, etc.), cocaine, methamphetamines, or marijuana can be extremely uncomfortable and painful, but not deadly. Patients who come to Pine Rest in order to detox from these substances are still treated with several different medications to reduce that discomfort. This can help the detox process be successful and prevent an immediate relapse.

Seeking Addiction Treatment and Compassion

While the general population’s knowledge of addiction and recovery is increasing, there are still many common misconceptions and a general lack of knowledge, which leads to decreased access to important care and resources as well as a lack of understanding and compassion for those who suffer from this disease.

Deciding to get treatment for addiction is often an extremely difficult decision to make. An individual can suffer from addiction for years before ever getting treatment. Depending on the substance of choice and severity of use, the withdrawal process can be extremely dangerous. In these situations, medical detox is a crucial part of a safe beginning to sobriety and recovery.

Addiction is a disease, and the staff at Pine Rest aim to provide compassionate care to each and every person who walks through the doors. We understand that everyone suffering from addiction has their own story and unique journey with their own treatment needs and aim to provide you with the unique individualized care that you need.

You are not alone! We can support you or your loved one at every step of recovery.

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