Singer Amy Winehouse may have died from detoxing from alcohol too abruptly, her family allegedly claims in a story in the British tabloid The Sun.
While toxicology tests on Winehouse, who died Saturday, are still pending, her family supposedly told the newspaper that although the singer’s doctor told her to stop drinking gradually, she might have ignored the advice and gone cold-turkey, a drastic process her body may not have been able to handle.
Can death result from a cold-turkey alcohol detox? Yes, says Dr. Karen Miotto, medical director of the UCLA Alcoholism and Addiction Medicine Service and an addiction psychiatrist, who spoke hypothetically about the situation, not specifically about Winehouse.
Cold-turkey alcohol detox may be dangerous for some people. “Often in our field we’ll hear from people that they told their spouse not to drink and threw all the alcohol in the house away,” Miotto says. “That’s not a good idea -- they need to be medically evaluated first.” Medication may be necessary to help wean the person safely off alcohol to prevent harmful and possibly fatal seizures as well as other severe symptoms such as delerium tremens. Other considerations for detox include how much and how long the person has been drinking, if there have been detox attempts in the past, if there is a history of prior seizures, and if other drugs or medications are being taken.
The brain, she adds, may reach a point where alcohol becomes necessary to function. “In its absence the brain can release chemicals, flight-or-fight hormones that are released in response to what it thinks is imminent danger.” That can also raise blood pressure and pulse and put a person at greater danger for cardiovascular problems and slightly higher risk for stroke and heart attack.
That imbalance of brain chemicals can also up the risk for seizures and possibly death. “You can hit your head on the corner of a table or aspirate fluid" during a seizure, Miotto says.
“Unfortunately, addiction treatment is poorly understood,” she adds. “Some people feel a lot of guilt and shame about their ability to stop, so they convince themselves they’re not going to get treatment and go cold turkey.”
But Miotto says addicts should not be embarrassed about seeking help. “A medically supervised withdrawal helps to give dignity to the condition, and it helps people have a chance at a clearer thought process so they can engage in treatment.”