What is Delirium Tremens? Late Stage Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol abuse is a major problem across the nation, with over 6% of Americans reporting they drink heavily at least once per month.

Regular alcohol abuse leads to withdrawal symptoms when drinking ceases — some of which are life threatening. One of the biggest health risks associated with alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens; a severe form of withdrawal involving sudden mental and nervous system changes.

Delirium Tremens Defined

Before we look closer at the effects and problems associated with delirium tremens (DT), let’s take a look at what it actually is. 

Merriam-Webster defines the term as: 

“A violent delirium with tremors that is induced by excessive and prolonged use of alcoholic liquors.” 

More specifically, delirium tremens is an incredibly severe form of alcohol withdrawal (often referred to as Stage 3) which involves profound confusion, autonomic hyperactivity, and cardiovascular collapse. Delirium tremens can prove to be deadly.

In fact, up to 25%of people who experience DT die from the symptom.

How Much Do You Have to Drink to Get Delirium Tremens? 

DT occurs when people drink 4 to 5 pints of wine, 7 to 8 pints of beer, or 1 pint of hard liquor every day for several months. Similarly, delirium tremens can also affect people who have used alcohol for more than 10 years. 

Symptoms of Delirium Tremens

There are a number of dangerous symptoms associated with DT, ranging from uncomfortable to life-threatening. 

Some of the less threatening symptoms include: 

  • Excitement or fear 
  • Bursts of energy 
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and touch 
  • Sleepiness  
  • Fatigue 

Along with these, there are a number of scary and even life-threatening problems which can occur, including: 

  • Delirium, or severe confusion 
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Chest pain 
  • Fever 
  • Changes in mental function 

Seizures are also a major problem which occurs for people who are dealing with alcohol withdrawal and delirium tremens, specifically. 

The most common seizures are generalized tonic-clonic seizures. This type of seizure affects the entire body, and can lead to issues like hallucinations and dizziness. Another common problem associated with this form of seizure is violent muscle contractions and loss of consciousness. 

Of note, seizures are also a symptom of alcohol poisoning (usually following a binge drinking episode) and may not be Delirium Tremens. Regardless, medical intervention is imperative if someone is having seizures.

Can Delirium Tremens Cause Brain Damage? 

Excessive alcohol use causes many different problems and affects every organ in the body, including the brain. While brain damage specifically is dependent on the person on a case-by-case basis. 

Delirium Tremens Timeline and Stages

For people dealing with DT, the symptoms usually begin 2 to 4 days after the last drink, but can occur even 7 to 10 days after. DT is considered Stage 3 of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) and not all people will experience it.

Stage 1 – Mild Withdrawal Symptoms – This first stage of alcohol withdrawal often occurs 8 to 24 hours after someone’s last drink and is characterized by symptoms such as insomnia, headaches, and increased anxiety. 

Stage 2 – Moderate Withdrawal Symptoms – The second stage of AWS begins about 48 to 72 hours after someone’s last drink and is characterized by sweating, nausea, and increased blood pressure.

Hallucinations, both auditory and visual, will occur 12 to 24 hours after your last drink and will follow the first minor symptoms.

Stage 3 – Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures – Severe cases of alcohol withdrawal will lead to the 3rd stage, alcoholic seizures and Delirium Tremens, 2 to 4 days after the last drink. These symptoms can last up to 5 days and involve loss of consciousness, violent muscle contractions, and even coma.

How Long Does Delirium Tremens Last? 

Typically, delirium tremens will last for about 2 days; however, in some cases, the problem can last as long as 5 days. 

Treatment for DT

In the past, alcohol withdrawal and DT was considered a psychiatric disease and was treated with straitjackets, padded rooms, and locked restraints. Luckily, this is not the case anymore as medical advancements have been made and the problem is more well understood. 

When it comes to treatment for DT, the primary goals are to: 

  • Control agitation 
  • Decrease risk of seizure 
  • Decrease mortality 

Oftentimes, to help treat alcohol withdrawal and DT, patients will be given access to certain medications which can help. For example, benzodiazepines, specifically lorazepam and diazepam, are a common medication for helping to combat certain withdrawal symptoms. 

How To Get Rid of DTs? 

Essentially, for treating DT the ultimate goal is to watch, manage, and help the patient return to homeostasis. If symptoms begin to worsen, medical professionals will help  stabilize the patient, but at this moment there is no get-healthy-quick cure for delirium tremens or alcohol addiction in general. 

While there may be no “cure” for DT, there are ways to avoid the problem overall from the very beginning. 

How to Avoid Delirium Tremens

To avoid delirium tremens patients should seek help as soon as they decide they want to stop drinking. Getting into a reputable medical detox facility can help ensure a team of professionals help prevent DT or help you cope with any symptoms of withdrawal.

Once your body has essentially purged alcohol from its system, the best thing you can do is go to a treatment center to get professional help for this issue. 

Overall, alcohol withdrawal, and delirium tremens specifically, can be a major problem and even prove to be life-threatening in some cases. If you or a loved one is dealing with problems related to alcohol abuse or addiction, there are professional addiction treatment facilities available to help you overcome these problems. 

The Hope House is one addiction rehab in Scottsdale dedicated to helping people conquer addiction and commit to long-term sobriety. If you would like to learn more about how The Hope House may be able to help you, give our addiction specialists a call today and discuss our alcohol rehab – Arizona.

Get Help Overcoming Delirium Tremens