Why Withdrawal Can Kill and How to Successfully Help a Loved One Get Sober

Woman feels strong pain

For many people, being addicted to drugs or alcohol is a shameful situation they don’t want to talk about. And that’s understandable; they have probably already been soundly criticized by spouses, parents or siblings. There may have been knock-down, drag-out battles when they came home drunk or when the rent money was spent for drugs.

A person who struggles with uncontrollable use of drugs or alcohol struggles with the attitudes of those around him as well as his or her own shame. As though the addiction itself wasn’t enough of a struggle.

The problem is that this sense of shame resulting from the inability to break free from drugs or drinks could actually cause their death. There comes a time that many people see the terrible damage they are causing for themselves, their kids and their whole lives and they become desperate to quit. They may be so desperate that they quit suddenly and without support.

For some people, this is a fatal decision. They never would have made that decision if they knew that an unsupported withdrawal could kill them.

Alcohol Withdrawal Can Be Deadly

Actually, it’s long been known that alcohol withdrawal can be violent and deadly, with the individual suffering from seizures and high fevers. Some people who drink heavily know this and seek help from a medical detoxification program (usually referred to as a med detox) to ease them back to sobriety. Around-the-clock medical supervision is required to ensure that seizures are controlled, fevers do not go too high, and other symptoms—such as hallucinations—don’t get too violent.

What is not recognized as often is who might need this kind of support. What’s the level of alcohol consumption that would require a stay in a med detox? How long would the person need to be drinking? Is it only for people who have been drinking a quite heavily for a decade?

One family doctor with a specialty in addiction medicine recommends that any person drinking four drinks a night over a long period of time seek medical support when withdrawing from alcohol. An emergency medicine doctor in Georgia says that the number of times a person has previously gone through withdrawal makes a difference because of the changes the alcohol progressively makes in a person’s brain.

Of course, the longer a person drinks, the more organ damage they do to themselves. Greater degrees of organ damage can impair a person’s ability to detoxify alcohol on their own. The best rule is to be fully evaluated by a doctor who is familiar with alcohol addiction and its effects before you stop drinking.

Unnecessary Losses

Emergency room paramedics saving life

A study in Spain found that 37.8% of those arriving at the emergency room with alcohol withdrawal syndrome had to be admitted to intensive care and 6.6% died. That’s one in every 15 people. What makes this statistic so sad is that these were people making a supreme effort to get sober. They needed a better understanding of what alcohol does to the body so they wouldn’t go it alone.

Despite People’s Opinions, Opioid Withdrawal Can Also Be Fatal

Many people have the idea that opioid withdrawal is never fatal. But unfortunately, that is not always true.

It might be true that a young, healthy person could survive an unsupported withdrawal from, say, heroin or morphine use. But in many cases, that’s not the situation that exists. You could have a person who has been homeless and using heroin for ten years. He could have hepatitis from sharing needles which means his liver is compromised. He could also have heart disease. For him, opioid withdrawal could easily be fatal.

Many people are using more than one drug or the drugs they are sold are incredibly strong. They might be combining fentanyl with Xanax and alcohol, or adding ketamine to the mix. Or they might have been sold the most powerful of all opioids, carfentanil, only intended for use on large animals. But it’s found in American drug supplies.

A person withdrawing from a mixture of drugs might not survive the process, even if they could have survived withdrawal from the primary drug they were addicted to. It’s the same with a person trying to withdraw from the most powerful opioids. They might not even know what they have been taking.

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal is Also Risky

The other class of drug known to create life-threatening symptoms during withdrawal is the benzodiazepines: Xanax, Valium, Librium, Halcion, Ativan, Klonopin and others. If a person has been on a high dose, hallucinations, psychotic behavior, panic attacks, muscular pain, and seizures may result during withdrawal. These symptoms can be life-threatening.

One of the problems with benzodiazepine withdrawal is that symptoms can kick in within 24 hours or take two weeks to show up. Three to four days is more common.

How You Can Help a Loved One Succeed

Doctor consultation

The safest route out of addiction starts with a medical examination by a doctor familiar with the stresses of withdrawal. Your family doctor might not be familiar with what happens during this stressful process. If possible, a doctor specializing in addiction should be consulted.

If your loved one is entering an in-patient drug rehabilitation program, there should be a doctor available to make a skilled evaluation before the person enters the program. Based on the doctor’s evaluation, med detox may be needed before starting the withdrawal program.

When the med detox is complete, that individual should still be carefully monitored as they start the rehab program to ensure that all symptoms of withdrawal have been eliminated. At the start of the Narconon drug rehabilitation program, each person spends time in a special Withdrawal Unit where they are monitored around the clock and provided with generous nutritional supplementation to enhance the body’s ability to detoxify from any drugs remaining in their systems.

They also work one-on-one with Withdrawal Unit staff who know just how to “keep them out of their heads,” as many describe it. Gently, each person is encouraged to focus on the present and a better future and is given the tools to start gaining control of their emotions and reactions. This withdrawal support gives each person a gentle, gradual and ideal start to the whole process of addiction recovery.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.