Delirium Tremens: Risk Factors, Symptoms, and Treatment
While occasional alcohol use is fine, some people have a hard time controlling how much they drink. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), nearly 30 million people struggled with alcoholism in 2021.
One common symptom of alcohol addiction is physical dependence. Dependence simply means that your body relies on alcohol to function, and suddenly stopping its use will cause potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Without medical treatment, alcohol withdrawal can develop into a condition known as delirium tremens (DTs).
Delirium tremens is a form of severe alcohol withdrawal characterized by symptoms like tremors, hallucinations, and seizures. Risk factors include being a heavy, long-term drinker, having a history of seizures, and experiencing alcohol withdrawal in the past.
While delirium tremens can be life-threatening, receiving treatment from a detox facility will ensure that you remain safe, comfortable, and medically stable.
Understanding Delirium Tremens (DTs) and Its Symptoms
Delirium tremens is a condition that results from severe and untreated alcohol withdrawal. Typically, DTs begin two to three days after your last drink.
DTs occur among 5 to 10% of people who experience alcohol withdrawal. While delirium tremens is not necessarily common, it can result in life-threatening symptoms and death when left untreated.
The symptoms of delirium tremens include:
- Tremors and shaking
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat, and high blood pressure
- Deep sleep
- Excitability and anger
- Being easily startled
- Excessive sweating
- Hallucinations and delusions
- Passing out
- Sensitivity to stimuli
- Severe hyperactivity
If you develop DTs, it may cause your body temperature, breathing rate, or blood circulation to change quickly. Unfortunately, this can lead to a variety of life-threatening complications that require immediate medical attention, like irregular heartbeat, trouble breathing, seizures, and an electrolyte imbalance.
What are the Risk Factors for Delirium Tremens?
Alcohol is a depressant that slows down activity in your brain and central nervous system. To overcome the depressive effects, the brain and body have to work harder. If you are addicted to alcohol, your brain is in a constant state of overworking or overexcitement to balance the depressant effects. When you suddenly stop consuming alcohol, your nervous system cannot adjust quickly enough, causing it to become overstimulated and produce symptoms of withdrawal.
Not everyone who detoxes from alcohol experiences DTs. Some people are considered high-risk. The main risk factors associated with DTs include:
- Starting drinking at a young age
- Having a history of seizures
- Experiencing alcohol withdrawal in the past
- Being a heavy and long-term drinker
Heavy, long-term drinkers are more likely to experience DTs. Heavy drinking is defined as having more than 8 drinks a week for women and 15 for men.
Can Delirium Tremens Kill You?
Delirium tremens can cause a wide range of life-threatening symptoms, from severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances to grand mal seizures. As a result, you should always seek medical assistance from a professional detox center.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), delirium tremens have a mortality rate of up to 37% without treatment.
Due to this high mortality rate, it is extremely important to know how to recognize the early symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. By doing so, you could seek the medical treatment you need and prevent DTs from developing in the first place.
Early symptoms of alcohol withdrawal to look out for include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- High temperatures and chills
- Excessive sweating
- Unpleasant or vivid dreams
- Cravings for alcohol
If you notice these symptoms when you are not drinking alcohol, you likely need medical detox services.
How is Delirium Tremens Treated?
Delirium tremens are often treated in a hospital setting or under the care of a medical detox center for alcoholism. Typically, benzodiazepines are used to limit the symptoms you experience, including preventing you from developing seizures.
In addition to benzodiazepines, you may require IV fluids that contain vitamins and minerals to combat dehydration and electrolyte imbalances caused by DTs.
Other medications used to treat delirium tremens include:
- Antipsychotic medications to prevent hallucinations and delusions
- Anticonvulsants to stop seizures
- Blood pressure medications
- Drugs to regulate your heartbeat
- Pain medication
It can take up to a week for DTs to be treated successfully. Once you overcome DTs and alcohol withdrawal, you should transition into an inpatient rehab program to receive evidence-based therapy and counseling that will prevent you from returning to alcohol abuse.
Find Help for Alcohol Withdrawal
If you or a loved one suffers from alcohol use disorder, the first step in recovery should always be medical detox. Whether you are suffering from mild withdrawal or delirium tremens, a detox center can provide you with the treatment, medications, and support you need to remain safe, stable, and comfortable.
At New Jersey Interventions, our team can verify your insurance, assess your needs, and connect you with the best alcohol detox center for you. To get connected with a highly-rated alcohol detox and treatment program near you, contact New Jersey Interventions today.
- The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the United States, Retrieved December 2023 From https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-topics/alcohol-facts-and-statistics/alcohol-use-disorder-aud-united-states-age-groups-and-demographic-characteristics
- Science Direct: Delirium Tremens, Retrieved December 2023 From https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/delirium-tremens
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): What is excessive alcohol use, Retrieved December 2023 From https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/onlinemedia/infographics/excessive-alcohol-use.html
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH): Delirium Tremens, Retrieved December 2023 From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482134/
Medically Reviewed: December 21, 2023
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.