American actor Nelsan Ellis, star of the popular television series True Blood, was only 39 years old when he died of heart failure associated with complications of alcohol withdrawal on July 8.
Ellis battled alcohol and drug addiction for years, but because he was ashamed, he struggled in private. Only his family and closest friends knew about his addiction and his frequent attempts at drug and alcohol treatment and rehab.
Like many alcoholics and drug addicts, desperation to beat his addiction led Ellis to attempt detox suddenly, on his own, without benefit of medical assistance. According to his family, he developed a blood infection and his kidneys shut down during withdrawal from alcohol, leading to irregular heartbeat and death from cardiac arrest.
Can you Die during Withdrawal from Alcohol?
Alcohol is a toxin that causes significant changes to the brain and central nervous system, but eventually, after continued use, the body adapts to the changes. The delicate balance is turned upside-down when alcohol is suddenly stopped, and the body is thrown into turmoil as it tries to re-adjust.
Detoxing from alcohol without medical assistance is extremely risky and of symptoms depend on a number of factors, including, age, general health, and duration and severity of alcohol addiction. Individuals who have attempted detox previously, without success, are also at higher risk of complications.
Although it isn’t common, it is definitely possible to die during withdrawal from alcohol withdrawal. It is estimated that death occurs for at least five percent of chronic alcoholics who attempt to detox suddenly, without medical assistance.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
For light drinkers in good overall health, withdrawal symptoms are usually relatively minor and may include insomnia, anxiety, trembling hands, sweating, fatigue, headaches, loss of appetite and nausea. Moderately heavy drinkers may experience the above symptoms in addition to hallucinations, racing pulse and irregular heartbeat.
More severe symptoms that often affect long-term, chronic drinkers include blood pressure spikes, nightmares and seizures. Delirium tremens, also known as DTs, are the most dangerous withdrawal symptom, consisting of profuse sweating, severe hallucinations, fever, agitation and abnormally fast heart rate.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can begin as soon as two hours after the last drink, but usually show up after about six hours and peak at 24 to 72 hours, easing after about seven days.
Detoxing from Alcohol Safely: What Happens During Alcohol Detox?
Detoxing from alcohol should never be done alone. If you are determined to detox at home, talk to your doctor before you begin and be sure to have a friend or family member with you at all times.
The safest way to detox is to check into a hospital or detox center where staff can monitor your body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate around the clock.
A physician can prescribe medications to control seizures, calm anxiety, reduce tremors and slow your heart rate. You will probably be given fluids by IV, and you will likely be given injections of thiamine to correct a deficiency in a B vitamin that commonly affects alcoholics due to lack of proper nutrition.
Once the alcohol has left your system, you can begin drug and alcohol treatment or rehab, where you will learn how to adjust to life without alcohol. A carefully devised treatment plan can help you manage cravings and reduce the risk of relapse.