As a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, I want to improve education around alcohol and its health risks. For the most part, the general public isn’t as aware of the physical health risks that are particular to relapse; as such, they may not be able to understand some of the dangers. To be clear, this article is not meant to be punitive. Instead, what I hope to accomplish is to provide vital information that most people may not know about alcoholic relapse.
Alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs, so efforts to reduce harm are critical. Relapse is prevalent with any substance addiction; however, each substance type poses different risks. If you or someone you know has had an alcoholic relapse, keep the following two issues in mind to help reduce potential risks.
Alcohol tolerance changes with relapse.
Chronic use of alcohol will change the way your nervous system works. To cope with alcohol, the nervous system needs to rebalance itself to reduce damage to the brain and neurons. By doing so, a person will have increasing levels of tolerance for alcohol during use. This means that a person will need to use increasing amounts of alcohol to get the same effect.
However, when a person has quit drinking, this tolerance will reset depending on how long the person has been sober. This means that the person now has a lower tolerance for alcohol than they had before getting sober.
A lowered tolerance for alcohol means that a person can be at risk for overdose or alcohol poisoning. This is especially true for people who have struggled with serious alcohol abuse. In the past, they may have been able to drink very high amounts of alcohol without feeling particularly “drunk.” Again, this is because tolerance increases with chronic alcohol abuse over time. Once a person goes through a period of sobriety and then relapses, they may think they can drink the same amount of alcohol they once consumed during peak addiction. However, this is not the case.
Unfortunately, this information is not widely known, which increases the risks of overdose for people who have relapsed. If you or someone you know has had an alcohol relapse, don’t panic or berate yourself. Relapses are very common as a person works through getting sober. However, please remember that alcohol tolerance has changed and will require some awareness about the amount of alcohol consumed during relapse.
Withdrawals are often worse with each relapse.
A critical issue few know about is how repeated withdrawals can damage the nervous system. For some people, this damage can be permanent depending on the amount and frequency of alcohol consumed. For example, I recently spoke to a gentleman who developed seizures during alcohol withdrawal. Unfortunately, even after getting sober, he still needs to take anti-seizure medication.
Striving towards sobriety is a worthy goal, but it can be challenging to stay sober, and relapses are common. Withdrawal is a standard part of getting sober as a person must detox from alcohol first. Detox does not cause significant health issues when done safely with medical attention. However, many alcoholics often detox on their own and, as such, go through difficult withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, each withdrawal process that isn’t medically supervised puts incredible stress on the body, especially the nervous system.
With this understanding in mind, two critical issues need to be considered. For anyone who struggles with alcohol abuse, it’s imperative to withdraw using medical help, even if you don’t think you need it. Some medications can significantly reduce the risk of severe withdrawal complications. But more so, this reduces the risk of future withdrawals becoming more complicated as well.
Secondly, if you have had previous withdrawals that were not medically treated and supervised, be aware that future withdrawals can be more risky. This means that if you have relapsed again, you will likely need more medical supervision than before.
Understanding these two crucial issues can significantly reduce the health risks associated with alcoholic relapse. This education is not widely available for two reasons. For one, people who struggle with alcohol abuse often don’t reach out for help due to the immense stigma associated with alcoholism. Because of that, they are not likely to receive any education at all. Secondly, even if a person does reach out for help, doctors may not always provide this information.
The more we talk about these hidden issues around alcoholism, the better. Alcohol is legal and commonly used, and abuse rates are increasing each decade. Hopefully, articles like this can improve harm reduction and reduce health risks.