Is suddenly quitting alcohol more dangerous than drinking?



The latest campaign from MacMillan Cancer Support, “Go Sober for October” encourages people to quit drinking for a month to raise money for cancer. Although many people use campaigns like this as an opportunity to change their relationship with alcohol, you might be surprised to learn that for someone struggling with alcoholism, it can be dangerous to quit drinking too quickly.

In fact, the sudden absence of alcohol in the body can cause detox symptoms that can range from minor to symptoms that present a significant risk to your health. If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to alcohol, the safest way to quit drinking is under the care of a health professional who can monitor your health and provide appropriate medicine and support.

What is alcohol addiction?

Alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism or alcohol dependence, is a type of substance use disorder that involves the overconsumption and overreliance on alcohol, and it requires medical intervention to overcome safely. It is not advisable to detox from alcohol on your own as there are significant health risks that can come from alcohol withdrawal. We always advise that you discuss any concerns you have about your drinking habits with a doctor or health professional.

Detox and the effects on the body

Chronic alcoholism can cause a change in the brain’s neurochemistry. This means that alcohol affects the neurotransmitters dopamine and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). If you suddenly stop drinking, this can cause rapid fluctuations in these neurotransmitters, which can affect the nervous system. We call these detox effects withdrawal symptoms.

Because your brain will be used to high-alcohol volumes, you will feel intense cravings for alcohol as the brain tries to balance itself. If no alcohol is consumed, GABA levels remain low and you will experience withdrawal symptoms.

In medical terms, this is described as substance dependence. Once you are at this point, it is likely you are addicted to alcohol, which presents a significant risk to physical and mental health and requires careful handling. It would be dangerous for you to quit drinking alone without medical support.

Withdrawal symptoms and what they mean

Withdrawal symptoms start between 3-12 hours after your last beverage and cause a strong urge to drink alcohol again. Many people understandably fall into a pattern of regular drinking to prevent uncomfortable and dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Before you know it, you are addicted to alcohol and may find it difficult to get out of this cycle.

More common alcohol withdrawal symptoms

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Trembling
  • Severe cravings
  • Sweating
  • Major depressive disorder

Delirium Tremens (DTs)

Around 1 in 20 people with alcohol withdrawal symptoms will go on to develop a set of severe symptoms known collectively as delirium tremens (DTs for short) (3). The symptoms of this include:

  • Marked trembling and agitation
  • Confusion
  • Psychosis (seeing or hearing things that are not there)
  • Convulsions
  • Dehydration
  • In severe cases, delirium tremens can be fatal

Withdrawal symptoms will be their worst for the first 48 hours, as the alcohol leaves your system. This should gradually improve over 3-7 days as your body adjusts. It is important to maintain fluids and to eat regularly, even if you don’t feel like it. This will help with the feelings of nausea. You also cannot to drive whilst undergoing alcohol withdrawal.

How to stop drinking safely

It is not safe to quit drinking on your own, but there is a lot of support out there to assist you on your journey. In the first instance, it is always advisable to discuss your drinking concerns with a GP. Your doctor may refer you to a psychologist who can help with the psychological aspects of addiction.

They will offer you space to talk about your problems and will provide strategies to help manage the complex thoughts and feelings that underlie any addiction. A doctor can help you to avoid quitting alcohol ‘cold-turkey’, which means abstaining from alcohol immediately, with no time to adjust. Instead, they will encourage you to wane off slowly and may provide medication to assist you with the process. Tranquiliser medications such as lorazepam and diazepam also raise GABA levels, helping to manage the withdrawal symptoms in a safe and controlled way.

How to seek medical assistance

Alcohol withdrawal and detox can be treated with minimal disruption to your routine, by attending appointments with doctors and mental health professionals, who will help you detox safely and manage the rest of the process on your own at home. Alternatively, you may find that a residential setting provides a more convenient and safe way to control alcohol withdrawal. If you drink more than 20 units of alcohol per week, the NHS advises that a medical detox is the safest way to withdraw from alcohol because the withdrawal symptoms are likely to be much more severe.

In this case, inpatient treatment may be more suitable, as inpatient detox can provide healthcare staff and psychologists on hand to provide medical and emotional support in a safe location, away from your usual temptations and triggers. You will likely be offered tranquiliser medication, such as lorazepam or diazepam, to help offset the withdrawal symptoms. Inpatient alcohol rehabilitation centres will also provide support for the long-term effects of alcohol consumption. It is essential to ensure that any inpatient service you use is CQC registered and to check that your insurance covers your stay if you do intend to use insurance to cover some or all of your treatment.

Alcohol detox is not something that should be approached lightly. There are significant health risks that many people are not aware of that can make detoxing dangerous if not handled safely in a controlled way. Whilst we support programmes like Go Sober for October or Dry January, which aim to change our drinking culture, we also want to make you aware that this is only beneficial for those who do not have alcohol dependence. If you have alcohol addiction then quitting alcohol without warning can be unsafe.

Addiction is not always easy to recognise, so you may not realise that you are dependent on alcohol until you stop drinking and notice withdrawal symptoms. If this happens, it’s important to get in contact with us for advice or speak to a GP about your concerns, so you can access medical attention swiftly and start the road to recovery.