Death by alcohol withdrawal is preventable, experts say

Read more about 2009 Inductee Carol Regier’s Story of Excellence here.

ARGUS LEADER

Image of Carol Reginer

2009 Inductee, Carol Reginer

Alcohol withdrawal doesn’t have to be a killer.

Treating symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can prevent the biggest risks to the patient, said Carol Regier, CEO of Keystone Treatment Center in Canton.

Keystone uses physicians and nurses to treat patients at its detox facility. They check vital signs and then monitor patients closely, checking on them every hour at a minimum, Regier said.

“We look at withdrawal as a very serious condition,” Regier said.

Alcohol presents a very real threat to chronic users and occasional binge drinkers. There are about 88,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States each year, making alcohol the third-leading cause of preventable deaths.

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal depend on the patient. Sometimes withdrawal symptoms are limited to feelings of anxiety, nausea and disorientation.

It is not commonly identified as a cause of death, often because there isn’t enough information, said Dr. Kenneth Snell, coroner for Minnehaha County.

“Alcohol withdrawal is routinely not something we see on the fatal side,” Snell said.

People who go untreated can suffer seizures within a matter of hours after their last drink. About 5 percent will suffer delirium tremens after a period of 1 to 4 days, during which period the person’s life is most at risk. Delirium tremens includes seizures accompanied by confusion, disorientation or hallucination.

Between 5 and 25 percent who suffer from delirium tremens die—though death can be prevented with proper care.

The most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be effectively treated with benzodiazepine medication, according to decades-old research.

Patients can also be treated with a lorazepam injection to calm seizures. Other withdrawal symptoms can be treated with fluids, good nutrition and Vitamin B supplements. The National Institute of Health recommends treating seizures immediately in a quiet room and providing an IV to the highest-risk patients.

Keystone’s approach to detox mirrors the federal recommendations. It’s highest-risk patients are transferred by ambulance to a general hospital.

“We have never, in 44 years, had a death from alcohol withdrawal here,” Regier said. “Because if they get really severe, we transfer them.”

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