What Is Delirium Tremens (DTs)?
Delirium tremens, often called DTs, is the most severe symptom associated with alcohol withdrawal. When someone drinks heavily, their body becomes dependent on alcohol in order to function; if alcohol use stops suddenly, acute withdrawal symptoms like delirium tremens may occur. DTs may be referred to as alcohol withdrawal delirium, or “having the shakes.”
DTs are characterized by a serious onset of symptoms, including extreme confusion, seizures, or mental disturbance. Researchers estimate that 50 percent of those suffering from alcohol abuse will exhibit alcohol withdrawal symptoms if they decrease their usage, and between three and five percent will experience DTs.
What Causes Delirium Tremens (DTs)?
Delirium tremens can occur when someone with heavy alcohol use stops drinking suddenly. Heavy alcohol consumption, especially over a length of time, can lead to a host of medical issues, in addition to DTs.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines excessive drinking as consuming 15 drinks per week for men, and 8 drinks per week for women. Some individuals may not understand what constitutes a standard drink, thereby minimizing their actual alcohol consumption.
A standard drink refers to:
- 12 ounces of regular beer
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 5 ounces of distilled spirits or liquor
Alcohol use interferes with the way the body regulates GABA, an essential neurotransmitter. The body may mistake alcohol for GABA, and stop production of GABA as a result. If someone struggling with heavy alcohol use stops drinking, their body believes there is not enough GABA to function, which can lead to symptoms associated with delirium tremens.
Additional risk factors for developing delirium tremens include:
- Drinking history: Those with a history of alcohol withdrawal are at an increased risk of DTs. If someone drinks heavily and quits multiple times, they may have experienced multiple instances of alcohol withdrawal.
- Length of alcohol use: Those who have been drinking heavily for a period of 10 years or more are at an increased risk for DTs.
- Malnutrition: Individuals with heavy alcohol usage may have replaced food with alcohol, leading to a higher risk of delirium tremens.
- Medical complications: Those who have a history of seizures, or are currently battling an illness or infection, are at a greater risk for DTs.
- Age and gender: Older adult men have the highest prevalence of delirium tremens.
- Ethnicity and race: Research indicates that Caucasian men are more likely to develop DTs.
Symptoms Of Delirium Tremens (DTs)
DTs can begin as early as 48 hours after abrupt alcohol cessation, and can last up to five days. If treatment is not sought, this condition is associated with a 37 percent mortality rate. Delirium tremens is a medical emergency, and knowing the symptoms of DTs can save someone’s life. If someone experiences any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately.
Some of the symptoms of delirium tremens include:
- body tremors
- change in mental ability
- irregular heartbeat
- trouble breathing
- stomach pain
- sensitivity to light and sound
- mood swings
- extreme fatigue
- change in attention span
- delusion (believing irrational things)
- delirium (extreme mental disturbance)
Diagnosis And Treatment of Delirium Tremens (DTs)
Delirium tremens affect thousands of Americans every year. Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug in the U.S., and DTs affect three to five percent of those suffering from alcohol abuse.
Alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., and every year, an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related health issues like DTs. Because DTs can be difficult to manage, the medical community now focuses on preventing DTs with routine alcohol screenings.
Diagnosis of DTs can be completed by a healthcare professional, and will likely include a physical exam to check for fever, dehydration, tremors, and irregular heartbeat. The physician may ask questions regarding the patient’s history with alcohol and alcohol withdrawal.
If you or someone close to you is exhibiting signs of delirium tremens, seek medical attention immediately. Hospitals and emergency response teams are equipped to treat DTs through the use of medication like benzodiazepines, in order to sedate and stabilize the patient. Being in a medical setting allows healthcare providers to monitor the patient, preventing further any complication.
Treatment For Alcohol Abuse And Addiction
While many people attempt to detox from alcohol at home, this can be extremely dangerous. Alcohol withdrawal and DTs can be life-threatening, and should be supervised in a medical setting. Fortunately, there is treatment available throughout the U.S., including alcohol detox programs and addiction rehab centers.
Once someone has successfully detoxed from alcohol, they are encouraged to explore options for entering an alcohol treatment center. Private insurance and public assistance programs help ensure that affordable, effective treatment is available to all.
For more information on preventing delirium tremens, or to learn more about treatment options near you, contact us today.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Fact Sheets - Alcohol Use and Your Health
- National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Alcohol Facts and Statistics
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Delirium tremens
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institutes of Health — Delirium Tremens (DT)