The death of “True Blood” actor Nelsan Ellis earlier this month from heart failure resulting from alcohol withdrawal highlights a troubling trend: alcoholics trying to beat their addiction without professional medical help, a practice doctors say can be even deadlier than detoxing from heroin.
“Withdrawal from opiates is miserable but not typically a medical emergency,” says Jeff Foote, Ph.D., co-founder of the Center for Motivation and Change (CMC) addiction treatment practice in NoMad. “But things like alcohol? Stopping it cold turkey is not just a medically dangerous thing to do — it’s a physically dangerous thing to do.”
Although rare and usually only occurring after sustained, heavy alcohol dependence, those with withdrawal syndrome can experience what doctors call delirium tremens. Symptoms include shaking, confusion and hallucinations. In these severe cases, the person’s brain is dependent on the substance, so removing it can trigger an extreme reaction, such as organ failure.
In cases like these, medical intervention is necessary because doctors can gradually administer prescription drugs that allow the body to safely taper off dependence. Because these drugs can have similar effects to alcohol, supervision is key, Foote says.
More than 15 million US adults struggle with alcohol use disorder, and only about a tenth of them actually seek treatment, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Of those who try to quit on their own, only about half succeed — the other half relapse, or in extreme cases, die, Foote says.
He also says that Ellis’ death signals a broader problem of how people see addicts as unworthy of help.
“[The stigma] is probably the largest killer here,” says Foote. “People feel so shamed by these kinds of troubles that they don’t want to ask for help. That’s a cultural problem.”
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