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What Is Delirium Tremens?

Delirium Tremens (DT) is classified as a severe and dangerous type of alcohol withdrawal. It is also referred to as alcohol withdrawal delirium (AWD). Delirium Tremens can occur as soon as 6 hours after ceasing drinking or up to 7 to 10 days afterwards. It’s most common in individuals who drank heavily before quitting or individuals who have had serious withdrawal symptoms in the past.

Symptoms associated with Delirium Tremens frequently last between 2 and 3 days, but in some cases, they may last for up to 7 days. If you’re trying to quit drinking or have recently quit, it’s easy to feel anxious about side effects and awful withdrawal symptoms. While Delirium Tremens is serious, when treated immediately, many people don’t experience complications.

Is It Common?

While 20% of people experience some type of alcohol addiction or dependency in their lifetime and 50% of people exhibit withdrawal symptoms after discontinuing drinking, only 3-5% of people who quit drinking experience Delirium Tremens.

If you’ve experienced severe alcohol withdrawal in the past, you have a history of seizures, or you have a concurrent illness, you may be more at risk for Delirium Tremens. If that’s the case, you should detox under medical supervision, such as in an inpatient treatment facility.

Does It Require Emergency Medical Treatment?

There are many complications associated with Delirium Tremens, such as seizures, sepsis, irregular heartbeat, and trouble breathing. For this reason, you should always promptly seek emergency medical attention if you believe that you’re experiencing symptoms of DT. When you go to the emergency room, you’ll be able to receive the treatment you need. It’s likely that you’ll be admitted and monitored in order to ensure you don’t experience any life-threatening complications.

Causes Of Delirium Tremens

Delirium Tremens is caused by drinking in excess and then abruptly reducing the amount of alcohol you consume or cutting it out completely. This occurs because alcohol is a depressant. When you drink, your central nervous system becomes less active. Upon reducing your alcohol consumption or cutting it out entirely, your central nervous system can become overactive, overstimulating your body.

Along with Delirium Tremens, you may also experience symptoms that are a result of the increased quantity of the amino acid glutamate. Increased glutamate can also cause high blood pressure, tremors, and seizures. Side effects of increased glutamate may occur along with Delirium Tremens or on its own.

Symptoms Of Delirium Tremens

Unfortunately, Delirium Tremens comes with a large list of symptoms and side effects. Not everyone experiences Delirium Tremens the same way, as it depends on how frequently and how much alcohol you were drinking prior to your detox. Those who drank large amounts are more at risk for developing DT. Common symptoms include:

  • Sudden and severe confusion or delirium
  • Body tremors, palpitations, or “shakes”
  • Changes in mental function or ability
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Deep sleep that lasts for a long time or fatigue
  • Excitement or fear
  • Hallucinations.
  • Mood changes.
  • Bursts of energy or restlessness.
  • Sensitivity to light, touch, and sound.
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Loss of appetite and nausea
  • Nervousness and sweating
  • Pale skin
  • Chest pain
  • Tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizures that occur within the first 12-48 hours

Treatment Timeline And Options

As previously stated, treatment for DT should occur as soon as possible after the first appearance of symptoms. While the first symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may occur after 6-12 hours, DT can occur up to 10 days after your last drink.

After one has been admitted to the hospital or emergency room, the doctors will run tests to determine whether you’re experiencing Delirium Tremens. They may run the following tests:

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) to test your brain activity
  • Blood test to check your magnesium and potassium levels
  • MRI to look for signs of seizure
  • Lumbar puncture test to examine spinal cord fluid
  • Metabolic panel
  • Toxicology screen

The results of these tests will help your team of doctors determine how to treat your withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal and DT are treated by using:

  • Antipsychotic drugs to reduce any hallucinations
  • Anticonvulsants to prevent seizures
  • Drugs to regulate your heartbeat
  • Pain medication
  • Benzodiazepines (like Librium) to treat the feelings of withdrawal

Long-term, there are many other treatment options that you should consider. After detox, it’s important to keep up your sobriety, as relapsing will only cause you to have to repeat withdrawal again in the future. To ensure that you’re maintaining sobriety for a healthy recovery, try attending group therapy or living in a sober living facility.

Can Delirium Tremens Be Prevented?

If you’re ready to detox from alcohol but you’re afraid of experiencing withdrawal, don’t worry. You’re not alone. For some, the fear of withdrawal only perpetuates alcoholism. However, there are safe ways to manage withdrawal symptoms.

If you choose to detox under the supervision of an inpatient treatment facility, they may administer Benzodiazepines to help prevent adverse symptoms from occurring. If you’re a heavy drinker, detoxing on your own can be scary and dangerous, so consider finding a treatment center or medically assisted treatment program to assist you along the way.

If you’re ready to detox from alcohol, or you’re looking to continue your recovery, contact a treatment provider.

  • Author: Megan Prevost | Last Updated: July 27, 2022

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    Megan Prevost

    Megan Prevost earned a B.F.A. in Creative Writing for Entertainment from Full Sail University. Her work has appeared in many different publications, and she’s held columns and guest spots on LGBTQ+ and entertainment websites. Previously, she’s written copy and content for both law firms and healthcare clinics. She is proud to be able to use her writing ability to help the addiction and mental health communities.

  • Medical Reviewer: Deborah Montross Nagel

  • Sources