Substance abuse issues have plagued America since the country’s early days. One of the signers of our original Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, sought to prevent alcohol addiction from plaguing our nation. American morphine addiction – the first prescribed opiate derivative – was uncovered during the late 1800s, and Prohibition sought, again, to stem the tide of alcohol abuse during the early 1900s. Addiction was still a prevalent concern through the mid-1960s, so much that official research, devoted to the study of addiction, was funded.
Historically, most attention has been directed toward finding ways to cease and prevent addiction and dependence on these harmful substances. As the number of addictive chemicals – and the amount of addicted population – increases, we are also beginning to widely observe the effects that attempting to get sober can produce, in itself. It turns out that there are physical dangers associated with withdrawal from common substances, and failing to heed them can be deadly.
Death from Alcohol Withdrawal
Sometimes, it takes a celebrity to suffer the consequences before people take notice. In 2011, the popular singer, Amy Winehouse, died from what her family reported to be alcohol dependence withdrawal. The possibility of death from this type of scenario was questionable enough to prompt an investigation by the well-known Mythbusters team. Even though it was later found that Winehouse had suffered from complications of intoxication – and had not died from the withdrawal – the results of the possibility as found by the Mythbusters was affirmative: Alcohol withdrawal can result in death.
The primary concern with alcohol withdrawal is the risk of seizures. Violent seizures can cause the detoxing person to choke on food or drink or can result in the person receiving a deadly blow to the head during the convulsions. These types of seizures can occur anywhere from a few hours, to a couple of days, following the last drink.
Apart from the danger of seizures, there are risks associated with heart and other organ malfunction. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it causes the central nervous system to function at a slower rate. When the alcohol is removed, the system can struggle to regain a state of normality in bodily functions. With some types of substance recovery, tapering off the dosage gradually can be an effective way to reduce these effects of shock on the body. The nature of alcohol addiction, however, can make this approach too difficult to achieve. Drinking more than a person intends is common enough to be included in every Monday morning chat around the water cooler.
Death from Benzodiazepine Withdrawal
The deadly complications from benzodiazepine – or benzos – withdrawal have been difficult to isolate. This is primarily due to the common occurrence of benzos being used along with other substances prior to the period of withdrawal. The most telling data regarding the potentially deadly effects of benzo-specific withdrawal is coming from reports of incarceration experiences.
As of 2009, there were only two documented cases of death due to benzodiazepine withdrawal. Since that time, there have been multiple accounts of individuals who were denied access to their prescribed anti-anxiety medications during their incarceration and subsequently died from the complications associated with rapid detox. These incidents have resulted in multiple lawsuits against state penal institutions, and have produced a movement toward increasing awareness of the dangers of unmediated benzodiazepine withdrawal.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome can produce relatively benign conditions, such as sleep disturbance and increased agitation. Those who are accustomed to higher dosages of the drug, however, are at risk of more serious effects of cold-turkey withdrawal. The severe effects of withdrawal can include psychosis and seizures, the latter of which can prove deadly. With benzos fast on the heels of opiates as the most abused substance in the United States, these instances of death resulting from withdrawal complications are worth taking note of.
Death from Opiate Withdrawal
We often hear of deaths from opiate overdose. It is less often that we hear of the dangers associated with opiate withdrawal. While death from alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal is primarily associated with seizures, opiate withdrawal has a unique danger: The danger of death by dehydration.
The flu-like symptoms of opiate withdrawal can be accompanied by severe sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea, and this can result in a loss of vital fluids and electrolytes. This lack of fluids can result in deadly amounts of sodium being present in the bloodstream, which can quickly contribute to total heart failure. Not being able to take in water, due to vomiting, and not being able to retain it, due to diarrhea, can mean confusion, organ failure, and death.
It is the case here, again, that this danger of death during opiate withdrawal is most often being observed within prison scenarios. These occurrences have been documented as far back as the late 1990s, and at least 10 instances were observed within a three-year period of this past decade. The opiate-related death rate for those within this marginalized population is prompting calls for reform in providing medical treatment for those entering jails and prisons. It is indicated that simple interventions – such as intravenous re-hydration – during this time period would be enough to save lives.
The Importance of Safe Detox
Even as detoxing without any medical assistance can be dangerous, there are concerns surrounding the procedure that is known as “rapid detox.” Within these programs, a detoxing individual is anesthetized as fluids and medications are flushed through the bodily systems. The idea behind this treatment is that the recovering person can avoid experiencing the discomforts of withdrawal, while simultaneously ridding her or himself of the addictive toxins in a much quicker time period.
Without proper mental preparation and proper medical care, such treatments can not only be ineffective, they can also be dangerous. Before choosing support for the detoxing needs of you or your loved one, make sure to thoroughly research the viability of the treatment methods and aftercare services of the facilities being considered.