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Actor’s Death Shows the Dangers of Detoxing Alone 

Actor Nelsan Ellis, whose portrayal of short-order cook/drug dealer Lafayette Reynolds on the HBO series “True Blood” helped make the show a hit, died last month from heart failure following an attempt to detox from alcohol on his own. Ellis battled addiction for years and had previously been in and out of rehabilitation programs. His death calls attention to why trying to detox from alcohol without medical supervision can be so dangerous.

Detox and treatment programs can be expensive and require time away from a person’s daily routine and responsibilities, including family and work. In addition, many people are concerned with the stigma family and friends may attach to them for needing help. These are just some of the reasons why detoxing at home may seem like a good idea.

Why Is Detoxing Dangerous?

Detoxing is the process of removing alcohol and drugs from the system. When a person stops drinking alcohol suddenly, they can experience dangerous and sometimes deadly withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal can be broken into three stages:

  • Stage 1: Anxiety, insomnia, nausea and abdominal pain. Begins eight hours after the last drink.
  • Stage 2: High blood pressure, increased body temperature, unusual heart rate and confusion. Begins 24–72 hours after the last drink.
  • Stage 3: Hallucinations, fever, seizures and agitation. Tends to begin 72+ hours after the last drink.

The five days just after quitting are the most life-threatening. Between 5-25 percent of people who go through extreme alcohol withdrawal die from the ordeal.

Why Medical Detox?

Medical detox programs provide the most comprehensive and supportive environment during alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol detox centers can use medications to help with alcohol-related cravings and properly manage dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Medical professionals can monitor a client’s heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure and other health indicators to help patients overcome physical addiction safely.

This form of detox is also the first step in the larger process of rehabilitation and recovery, which for many people becomes a lifelong process involving therapy, counseling and peer support. Detox alone is not addiction treatment; it is only a way to remove an addictive substance from the body. Continued treatment after medical detox includes reducing withdrawal symptoms, preventing complications of alcohol use and therapy to keep the person from resuming alcohol use.

Next Steps and Resources

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) maintains a search tool on its website to locate nearby treatment centers based on a person’s address and other requirements. SAMHSA’s free, confidential national helpline for individuals and family members facing substance abuse and mental health issues is also available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-662-HELP and 1-800-487-4889 (TTY).

Additional resources may be available through your Local Union, LIUNA health and welfare fund, employer or your community. Check to see if you have access to a Member Assistance Program (MAP) through your employer or LIUNA health and welfare fund. MAPs are designed specifically to assist with drug and alcohol issues.

Many types of insurance cover the cost of addiction treatment and rehab, and some organizations offer scholarships to help people afford treatment. Whatever the price, the bottom line is that the cost of not treating addiction is far greater than what is spent on recovery.

The LHSFNA has developed a number of materials to help those struggling with addiction. These include the Opioid Abuse & Addiction and Prescription Drug Addiction Health Alerts and the It’s Your Choice When You Know the Facts about Drugs and Alcohol pamphlet. To order these and other health and safety materials, go to and click on Publications. For more information, call the Fund’s Health Promotion Division at 202-628-5465.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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