Amy Winehouse: Did Alcohol Withdrawal Kill Her?

As Amy Winehouse‘s album Back to Black climbs back onto the charts and whispers begin about a treasure trove of unreleased songs, Winehouse’s family has a hunch about what we might find in her toxicology report—that she died from alcohol withdrawal. They believe that laying off the alcohol cold turkey may be what caused Winehouse’s sudden death last weekend at age 27. A source close to the family explains, “[Amy's father Mitch] said doctors had told Amy to gradually reduce her intake of alcohol and to avoid bingeing at all costs. Amy told him she couldn’t do that. It was all or nothing and she gave up completely. Mitch said the shock of giving up, after everything she had been through over a bad few years, was just too much for her to take. Abstinence gave her body such a fright, they thought it was eventually the cause of her death.”

So what exactly is alcohol withdrawal? And can it kill someone?

  • According US Department of Health and Human Services, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal flare up five to 10 hours after a person’s last drink, and intensify between the 48 and 72 hour mark. Symptoms include anxiety, depression, fatigue, clammy skin, enlarged pupils, shakes, loss of appetite, etc. During the first stages of withdrawal, most people feel an intense craving for alcohol. Symptoms can persist for weeks.
  • The most severe form of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens, and it usually manifests after three to five days without alcohol. It is characterizes by severe agitation, major confusion, hallucinations, and a high fever, and it can lead seizures, stroke, or heart attacks. In other words, it can be life threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
  • Because alcohol withdrawal can be so devastating to the body, rehab programs usually begin with detoxification. It’s a slight misnomer because it’s not simply about getting substances out of the body—some are introduced as well. These programs have developed strategies to decrease withdrawal symptoms, for example taking the vitamin thiamin for mild cases, or using benzodiazepines in more severe cases and gradually reducing the dosage, usually over the course of three to 10 days.
  • For people who have detoxed and relapsed multiple times, they may experience a phenomenon called “kindling,” where alcohol withdrawal symptoms are more severe. This is why abstinence is recommended after someone goes through this once.
  • Know what hangovers are? They are actually very mild cases of alcohol withdrawal as the alcohol content in the bloodstream drops. Eek!

It’s hard to say whether alcohol withdrawal is what killed Amy Winehouse—some say she was clean when she died, while others said she had been on a bender in her final days. We’ll have to wait for her toxicology report to find out. But if it is true, I find this especially sad. It means she was trying to finally tame her addictions—and that’s what killed her. Potentially terribly ironic.

What do you think—does this sound like a likely cause of death?

[National Institute of Health]
[About.com]
[Wikipedia]

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