Alcohol addiction often starts so slowly that people don’t realize how much their bodies have become dependent upon drinking until they try to stop. Delirium tremens is a condition that people often ask about when they are ready to enter recovery. Some people might have tried to stop drinking on their own, and they weren’t able to due to severe withdrawal symptoms. Others have heard about people who experienced this health issue. Learning more about what delirium tremens, or DTs, involves and how professional treatment can make the recovery process more comfortable.

Delirium Tremens

What Causes Delirium Tremens?

Once alcohol hits the bloodstream, it begins to create chemical changes in the brain. Some of these changes are associated with how people feel when they drink. Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it is slowing down the brain and nervous system functioning. Over time, the body gets used to the effects of alcohol and cannot function properly when someone suddenly stops drinking.

For people with a severe addiction to alcohol, this can lead to changes in the body that include a rapid increase in a particular protein called glutamate. Too much of this protein in the body causes the symptoms of delirium tremens such as high blood pressure and seizures.

Who Is at Risk for Developing the Condition?

It is hard to predict who will experience DTs. Although the risk is higher for people who have regularly consumed large amounts of alcohol for years, there are occasional cases where people with mild records of usage still have severe withdrawal symptoms. With that understanding, a person is at the highest risk of developing the condition when they regularly misuse alcohol.

Unmarried men have a history of being at higher risk of getting DTs, but that is starting to change now that alcohol is considered more socially acceptable for people of all genders and races to drink regularly. It is also known that people with health issues such as epilepsy and heart disease are more likely to experience the severe symptoms of this condition.

People who have had DTs before or who have relapsed after recovering in the past should also seek a professional opinion about the safety of trying to quit drinking on their own.

When Does Delirium Tremens Start?

Alcohol typically takes about 24 hours to clear a person’s system completely. This is why most people develop DTs on the second or third day after they have their last drink. The symptoms tend to reach their peak around the fourth or fifth day, and they can last as long as a week or more. Once again, the range of time for the symptoms to appear and continue is different for everyone.

What Are the Symptoms?

The changes that occur when the body struggles to function without alcohol affect blood circulation, temperature regulation, and respiration. The symptoms of DTs include the following:

  • hyperactivity and insomnia
  • rapid heartbeat
  • dehydration
  • confusion
  • hallucinations
  • severe tremors
  • seizures
  • heavy sweating
  • nightmares
  • high blood pressure

People may also exhibit personality and behavioral changes during the withdrawal process. This includes extreme mood swings and severe anxiety. If the symptoms reach a critical level, then passing out and going into a coma, in severe cases, the symptoms can be fatal without medical attention. For this reason, it is recommended that people who are only experiencing some of the milder symptoms still need to seek a professional assessment of their health status.

What Tests are Used for a Diagnosis?

Anyone who presents with the symptoms of delirium tremens during alcohol cessation receives a physical exam to rule out other health conditions. This exam can also identify whether a person is experiencing dangerous health symptoms such as high blood pressure that needs immediate treatment. A person might also be asked to provide information about their medical history, such as whether or not they’ve struggled with alcohol addiction in the past.

Other tests that might be administered include blood tests that can check for the amount of alcohol still in the person’s system. Since other health conditions can mimic DTs, testing can also determine if they suffer from low blood sugar or hormone levels.

Brain scans are sometimes used to check for activity within the nervous system and to check for signs of head injuries, strokes, and seizures.

What Treatments are Available?

The treatment for delirium tremens includes several different options that may be used alone or with other strategies.

Particular medications, such as benzodiazepines, are useful for calming down an overactive nervous system. These medications are typically only needed on a short-term basis to help people get through the most dangerous part of their recovery.

Other strategies involve specific symptom management. A person may need to take antipsychotic medications to treat hallucinations and severe behavioral changes. High blood pressure medications can prevent damage to the cardiovascular system until a person’s body can manage it independently. Pain medications can ease headaches, stomachaches, and other painful symptoms that are causing discomfort.

Most people who enter alcohol addiction treatment are also dehydrated and malnourished. This can increase the severity of the symptoms. IV fluids may be added to a person’s treatment plan and healthy food and vitamins to help restore the nutrients and fluids that a person needs to recover.

Is It Possible to Prevent Delirium Tremens?

The only way to prevent DTs is to avoid drinking alcohol. For someone with alcohol addiction, this can be very challenging. Once a person gets through the primary withdrawal process, they need to continue their recovery with professional counseling and treatment services that help them stay sober.

Alcohol rehab programs use group counseling, individual therapy, and recreational activities to help people begin a new and healthier lifestyle. Although alcohol recovery takes time and hard work, it is the only way to make sure that a person never experiences delirium tremens again.

The fear of the unknown can sometimes cause people to put off seeking treatment for alcohol addiction, but it shouldn’t. Delirium tremens is a temporary condition that is easily treated by a professional recovery team. Getting sober has long term benefits that include never having to worry about the DTs again. Going to a rehab program is the best way to determine if there is a risk for developing severe withdrawal symptoms and get a plan that puts you on the right path for a successful recovery.