Alcohol was slowly killing Nelsan Ellis, but his decision to finally stop drinking ultimately cost the actor his life.
The 39-year-old star of the HBO series “True Blood” died of complications from alcohol withdrawal, which prompted low blood pressure and his kidneys and heart to fail.
Doctors say alcohol is the most dangerous substance to withdraw from, especially without medical supervision. At least 800 deaths in the United States each year are blamed on alcohol withdrawal.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal is the result of the reduction or elimination of intake. But some people can’t go an hour without a drink. This type of excessive drinking is likely to become a health hazard. The risks of drinking alcohol vary but can be fatal. Consider that alcohol is responsible for about 88,000 deaths and many more unhealthy medical conditions.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that excessive alcohol use not only led to almost 100,000 deaths, but contributed to some 2.5 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) each year – from 2006 to 2010 – in the United States, while, in the meantime, shortening the lives of those who died as a result of drinking by some 30 years.
Short-term risks related to excessive drinking range from injuries in motor vehicles and unwarranted acts of violence to risky sexual behavior and alcohol poisoning. More chronic diseases and serious damage to health can emerge over extended periods of alcohol abuse.
Of particular concern, heavy drinking can also lead to liver damage and weaken other body organs including the heart and kidneys. Long-term risks from alcohol dependence can also increase the chance of heart disease, cancer, digestive disorders, and mental and social problems.
People with uncontrolled or problematic drinking suffer from a health condition called alcohol use disorder. The more common name for AUD is alcoholism. Signs of alcoholism include a preoccupation with drinking; a need to consume more alcohol to gain the same effect; and continued abuse of alcohol despite problems that arise from drinking.
Although the decision to stop drinking is noble and the first step toward a healthier lifestyle, the choice does not come without consequences. Besides intoxication, all people addicted to alcohol are prone to withdrawal after heavy or prolonged use and a sudden reduction in consumption.
That’s because alcohol has a depressive effect on the body. Drinking slows down the nervous system and changes the way messages are sent from these organs to the brain.
Over time, the nervous system and brain adapt to excessive drinking and actually become – much like the alcoholic – dependent on alcohol.
When levels of alcohol are suddenly lowered or eliminated, a disruption in the conditioned chemical process in the body and brain will trigger withdrawal.
Even drinkers of as few as two glasses of wine each night for many years can experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop.
This may feel more like a virus. More severe alcohol withdrawal is common among chronic and binge drinkers who have compulsive use or have lost control of their intake.
What are Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?
A person with AUD or a binge drinker can experience headaches, nausea, tremors, anxiety, hallucinations, and seizures in as few as two to four hours after the last drink or days later. Signs and symptoms of withdrawal include:
- Rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure
- Shaking or hand tremors
- Appetite loss
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- Restlessness, agitation, and irritability
- Nausea and vomiting
- Disorientation, anxiety or nervousness
More serious conditions of alcohol withdrawal will result in hallucinations or hearing, seeing or feeling things that are not real. Delirium tremens may begin as soon as two to five days, hours after the last drink. In addition to hallucinations, DTs symptoms can include:
- Severe tremors
- High blood pressure
- Elevated body temperature
If hallucinations were not scary enough, DTs can also threaten the brain’s ability to regulate breathing and blood circulation. For these reasons, DTs can be fatal. About one in 20 drinkers who fall into this state of extreme confusion will die.
Alcohol withdrawal depends on the individual. The severity of withdrawal will depend on the frequency of alcohol use and the permanent changes caused to the brain. More important than the number of drinks a person will have ina day is the frequency of withdrawals the alcoholic will experience over time.
What are the Stages of the Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline?
Alcohol withdrawal can be as short as a few days and as long as a couple of months. A guide for what to expect can be broken down into three stages.
For many, the discomforting effects during early withdrawal can be enough to make a person continue to drink. For those who are committed to stopping, the first symptoms from alcohol stoppage can be expected within eight hours of the last drink. The onset of symptoms will depend on the drinking history, but usually present itself in mild forms of:
- Trouble sleeping
- Stomach pain
Symptoms will become progressively more intense within one to three days after the last drink. At this point, the person who has gone without a drink can become confused and suffer from:
- High blood pressure
- Increased body temperature
- Unusual heart rate or rhythms
If symptoms become more extreme, medical attention including hospitalization may be necessary to prevent further injury or death. Usually, a heavy drinker will suffer from:
- Acute agitation
Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal presents a clear danger that heavy and binge drinkers should not take lightly. Consumption levels determine individual treatment, which makes honesty essential between the medical professional who is administering care and the patient receiving treatment. However, few people will admit just how much they drink.
With this in mind, a doctor may administer medications, such as a combination of thiamine and benzodiazepines including Librium, Xanax, or Ativan and Depakote, to treat alcohol withdrawal and relieve the physical suffering and the potential for seizures.
Why Should I Detox?
When a person decides to finally stop drinking, detoxification is the first step toward overcoming the dependency on alcohol. However, detox can be life-threatening and is highly recommended not to be attempted alone.
A professionally monitored detox in a residential treatment facility can not only provide for the safe withdrawal from alcohol but increase the chances of a long and sustained recovery. A medical professional, who is experienced in monitoring vital signs – your blood pressure and heart rate among others – will ensure that conditions do not exacerbate by delivering timely and appropriate care in a quiet and comfortable environment.
What is the Next Treatment Step?
Your dependency on alcohol did not advance overnight. But deciding to stop drinking can prove to be the smartest choice you will ever make. Recovery won’t be easy, but you no longer have to be a prisoner to alcohol any longer – if you don’t want to be.
Detoxification is the first step on a path toward continued sobriety. Of course, your journey will not end with detox. Sustained sobriety will often require a stay at a residential treatment center. Here you will be provided with the tools – such as group therapy, one-on-one counseling, educational lectures and workshops and customized treatment plans to match your individual needs – to build a successful recovery program and prevent against relapse.