What is Delirium Tremens (DTs) and How is it Managed?

Seeking treatment for alcohol abuse is one of the most important decisions a person will make in their lifetime. Medically supported detox and comprehensive treatment can help people overcome the physical, behavioral, and emotional aspects of their addiction and support lifelong sobriety.

Professional treatment and support are essential when you stop drinking. Some people develop dangerous, even life-threatening, withdrawal symptoms as their body adjusts to the absence of alcohol. One of the most severe complications that can occur during alcohol withdrawal is a condition called delirium tremens (DTs).

Delirium tremens is a serious medical condition that requires immediate intervention and treatment. While it is not common, anyone going through alcohol withdrawal can develop this life-threatening condition. It’s crucial to have professional supervision, support, and medical treatment during alcohol detox to reduce your risk for delirium tremens and other hazardous complications.

If you or a loved one needs support during alcohol detox, reach out to the team at Cobb Outpatient Detox now to learn about our effective outpatient detox programs or to schedule an intake assessment.

Understanding Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Alcohol use is common throughout the United States, with more than half of all adults reporting that they drink at least occasionally. Because alcohol is widely legal and available in nearly all parts of the country, people have easy access to it.

While many people drink in moderation, some people engage in unhealthy drinking patterns that could cause them to become physically dependent on alcohol. Alcohol abuse and addiction can quickly spiral into a dangerous, even life-threatening condition.

People with alcohol addiction often exhibit symptoms that include:

  • Neglecting their responsibilities, relationships, and hobbies
  • Experiencing legal, social, medical, or financial harm related to alcohol abuse
  • Needing to drink more to feel “buzzed” or other desirable effects
  • Engaging in hazardous activities while intoxicated, such as driving under the influence or having risky sex
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, meaning it slows down activity in the brain and body. People who drink heavily may face immediate danger from alcohol’s effects, including:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Changes in memory, focus, and cognition
  • Poor coordination
  • Nausea and vomiting

People are also at risk for alcohol poisoning if they consume more alcohol than their bodies can metabolize safely.

Alcohol abuse has long-term risks, too. People who drink excessively for extended periods may experience:

  • Higher risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, and heart attack
  • Increased risk for certain cancers
  • Liver damage
  • Brain damage
  • Cognitive problems

People who develop alcohol addiction need comprehensive treatment to safely stop drinking and develop the skills to avoid relapse for the rest of their lives.

Delirium Tremens: A Deadly Alcohol Withdrawal Complication

Alcohol works in the body by slowing activity in the central nervous system. People who drink heavily for long periods may develop a physical dependence on alcohol. If they stop drinking, they are likely to experience physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Cravings for alcohol

These withdrawal symptoms can lead to dangerous dehydration, low blood sugar, and other complications.

In rare cases, a person in alcohol withdrawal may develop a serious, potentially life-threatening condition called delirium tremens (DTs). The symptoms of DTs include:

  • Tremors
  • Extreme confusion (the delirium that gives the condition its name)
  • Extreme agitation with combative or aggressive behavior
  • Psychosis, including paranoia and hallucinations
  • Tachycardia (fast heart rate)
  • Hyperthermia (increased body temperature)
  • Heavy sweating
  • Sensory disruption (reduced awareness of the environment)
  • Seizures that can be deadly

The symptoms of DTs can develop very quickly and be life-threatening. People who do not receive quick treatment can die from the condition. In fact, it has a mortality rate of up to 37% without proper treatment.

What are the Risk Factors for Delirium Tremens?

Between 3-5% of people with alcohol use disorder experience DTs while detoxing. While anyone can develop DTs during alcohol withdrawal, certain risk factors make it more likely someone will develop this dangerous condition. The risk factors for delirium tremens include:

  • A personal history of seizures and DTs
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Mixing other substances and alcohol
  • Older age
  • Medical problems
  • Multiple instances of stopping alcohol use in the past

Medical professionals use tests and screenings to diagnose DTs to provide quick, accurate treatment. They may use urine screenings, organ function tests, and blood alcohol level assessments to make a diagnosis of delirium tremens.

It’s impossible to determine with certainty who will develop delirium tremens. The most important aspect of preventing DTs is to address alcohol abuse and addiction. People who live with alcohol addiction require comprehensive treatment and ongoing support to work toward a healthier, sober lifestyle.

How is Delirium Tremens Managed?

There are no medications or procedures that can “cure” delirium tremens. However, quick identification and access to treatment allow medical professionals to offer effective treatment.

Delirium tremens is primarily treated with medications that reduce activity in the CNS. Benzodiazepines and other sedatives can effectively calm central nervous system activity and halt the symptoms of DTs.

People who develop delirium tremens often become dehydrated and may have mineral deficiencies and electrolyte imbalances. Medical providers may give a person with DTs IV fluids to replenish missing minerals and rebalance electrolyte levels.

Learn More About Delirium Tremens

Professional support during detox will ensure you remain safe and comfortable throughout the process and increase your chances for long-term success. At Cobb Outpatient Detox, we provide clients with an individualized detox plan designed to keep them safe and comfortable during the alcohol withdrawal process. Reach out to the Cobb Outpatient Detox team to learn about our supportive detox programs or schedule an intake assessment.

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