Alcohol withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable. Anyone who has ever suffered from a hangover has experienced a mild version of it. The most extreme form of alcohol withdrawal is known as Delirium Tremens, also called The DTs, or “the shakes.”
Apart from being incredibly painful, delirium tremens can be dangerous and potentially fatal in severe cases.
Understanding the possible consequences of enduring delirium tremens symptoms might motivate long-term or heavy drinkers to seek treatment to avoid alcohol withdrawal.
What Are DTs – Delirium Tremens?
Delirium Tremens is also known as Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium (AWD), and is most common among heavy, long-term drinkers.
These are generally people who have lived with an alcohol use disorder for a decade or longer, though it is possible for someone living with severe alcoholism for a shorter amount of time to suffer from AWD.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines heavy drinking as consuming 15 drinks a week or more for men, and eight or more drinks a week for women.
Approximately 5% of people suffering from alcohol withdrawal will experience delirium tremens or DTs.
Individuals most at-risk for delirium tremens can include some of the following:
- Heavy alcohol drinkers
- Long-term drinkers
- People who have gone through alcohol withdrawal before
- Those with a history of seizures
- Younger, unmarried, adult white men
Anyone experiencing delirium tremens DTs should be under medical observation and care. If left untreated, alcohol withdrawal delirium can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or death.
What Causes The DTs?
Giving up alcohol “cold turkey” without proper treatment in a detox facility should always be discouraged for heavy or long-term drinkers because alcohol withdrawal can lead to sudden and perilous changes in a person’s brain chemistry and central nervous system.
Alcohol is a depressant that slows down the brain and nervous system. These two systems can’t adjust quickly enough when a heavy or long-term drinker abruptly stops their alcohol consumption.
The brain actually becomes over-stimulated from the lack of the depressant in the system when alcohol is removed, causing dangerous physical and mental symptoms.
Sometimes heavy drinkers that stop “cold turkey” experience a surge of the amino acid glutamate that can cause symptoms similar to delirium tremens, such as extremely high blood pressure, tremors, anxiety, and seizures.
One reason it’s so crucial for people with a long history of alcohol abuse to seek professional addiction treatment is that the symptoms of delirium tremens may not appear right away.
Delirium Tremens Symptoms
With the DTs, delirium tremens symptoms can appear quickly, but for most people, they can start anywhere from two to five days after a person’s last drink.
In other cases, the symptoms have been known to begin seven to 10 days after a person stops consuming alcohol.
Regardless of when the withdrawal symptoms start, they can be extremely dangerous to a person’s health.
Delirium Tremens Symptoms can include some of the following:
- Tremors in the hands, feet, and muscles
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat, or high blood pressure
- Fainting or passing out completely
- Confusion, anxiety, or hallucinations
- Heavy sweating, pale skin, or fever
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sleepiness or extreme fatigue
- Sensitivity to light, touch, and sound
- Severe Dehydration
- Extreme hyperactivity or excitability
Severe alcohol withdrawal causes an imbalance in the minerals and nutrients that control so many of the body’s functions, including breathing and blood circulation. When this happens it can lead to a life-threatening medical emergency.
Anyone experiencing the above symptoms should immediately call 911.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Delirium Tremens
Being diagnosed with delirium tremens usually involves a physical exam, along with an open and honest discussion about a person’s medical history and regular levels of alcohol intake.
Many physicians will also require a blood sample to measure magnesium and potassium levels, as well as tests for liver and heart function.
Delirium tremens treatment starts in the hospital because it is, without question, a dangerous medical emergency. A patient suffering from the DTs must be monitored to minimize the symptoms and prevent complications that can lead to death.
Benzodiazepines, which are tranquilizers like Valium, Ativan and Xanax, can be helpful for reducing the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. They also serve to lessen the anxiety associated with delirium tremens.
Introducing a nutritious diet is a key factor in treating delirium tremens. This is because many people struggling with an alcohol use disorder have extremely unhealthy diets and in fact, are often malnourished.
During the acute phase of delirium tremens or alcohol withdrawal delirium, it’s necessary to first stabilize the individual.
Hospitalization for the DTs can last for as long as a week. After being discharged from the hospital, long-term treatment for alcohol use disorder in a residential alcohol rehabilitation facility can promote recovery and a healthier lifestyle.
Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
Usually only long-term drinkers experience delirium tremens and they often require a treatment program to recover from alcohol addiction. They may have tried to quit drinking before but were unable due to a variety of reasons.
Experiencing uncomfortable alcohol withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit drinking is one reason why some people continue to drink. They drink to avoid withdrawal, but it becomes a never ending cycle, whereas treatment is a safer and healthier option.
Alcohol detox is the often the first phase of treatment for most people, although an individual recently discharged from the hospital for the DTs might not need it because they detoxed in the hospital.
After detox has been completed, a formal alcohol addiction treatment will begin, and can last anywhere from 30 to 90 days or more.
Residential alcohol addiction treatment combines a range of therapies that can include:
- Individual Therapy
- Group Therapy
- Family Counseling
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Relapse Prevention
It’s important to identify the root causes of alcohol use and addiction during recovery. Some people drink to cope with mental health issues like depression, known as a co-occurring disorder.
Co-occurring disorders of addiction and mental illness require dual diagnosis treatment to successfully overcome both conditions.
Seeking treatment for an alcohol use disorder can be helpful for anyone trying to quit drinking, but for those who have suffered with delirium tremens, it can be a vital necessity.
The safest and healthiest approach is to begin a recovery program before alcohol dependence or addiction reaches the point where the DTs become a problem.