For a person living with alcohol use disorder, quitting suddenly can be incredibly dangerous. In fact, within just six to eight hours of a person’s last drink, early withdrawal symptoms can set in. These commonly include shaking, sweating, nausea, and other signs of physical distress.
Unfortunately, if these early changes aren’t identified and medically managed right away, they can progress to a far more dangerous stage of withdrawal. This stage is known as delirium tremens or the DTs. In delirium tremens, people can experience visual and auditory hallucinations, stroke, heart attack, or seizures. Without proper medical support, the DTs can be life-threatening and result in death.
What Is Delirium Tremens?
Alcohol use stimulates the body’s central nervous system to trigger the release of “feel-good” neurotransmitters from its reward center. Once alcohol addiction or alcohol dependency is reached, the average person’s brain chemistry and health have been significantly altered.
Some neurotransmitters are no longer being produced without the artificial stimulation of alcohol, and others are rapidly misfiring. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is essentially a state of hyper-arousal with the body being overstimulated in many different areas and in many different ways.
Delirium Tremens may include:
- Intense feelings of aggression
- Profuse sweating
- Digestive upset
- Cognitive changes
Alcohol withdrawal can also cause heart palpitations and breathing difficulties, especially as it advances. Delirium tremens or the DTs don’t develop immediately after heavy drinking is stopped. Instead, early symptoms of alcohol withdrawal slowly progress until the DTs manifest. Delirium tremens typically start two to three days after a person has begun abstaining. Without medical intervention, the DTs can last for one week or longer.
Causes of Delirium Tremens
Alcohol use disorder and long-term alcohol abuse cause several different types of brain damage. In addition to altering normal brain functioning and normal brain chemistry, prolonged alcohol use can even alter the brain’s size by causing gradual shrinkage. The sudden cessation of alcohol use leaves the brain and body unable to acclimate to alcohol-free functioning. Heavy, long-term alcohol use is the most common cause of delirium tremens.
However, there are other risk factors that can make people more predisposed to developing the DTs. These include:
- A history of seizures
- A history of past withdrawal attempts
- Medical comorbidities such as liver disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes
In delirium tremens, the brain is overstimulated by rapidly misfiring neurotransmitters. It is struggling to adjust to a sudden change in what has ultimately become its “new normal”.
Early symptoms and signs of DTs include uncontrolled shaking of the hands and feet, decreased focusing abilities, extreme agitation and restlessness, and excitability. People may be easily startled at this time. They can also suffer from:
- Periods of extreme confusion
As delirium tremens progresses, people may no longer remember where they are, who they are, or why they’re in pain. Their skin may grow pale and cold. Extreme sensitivity to sound, bright lights, and touch can arise as well.
Symptoms such as these are why recovering alcoholics are always advised against going “cold turkey” or attempting to complete detox on their own. When the DTs progress, they are unlikely to naturally abate without having serious consequences. During a self-managed detox, the DTs can cause permanent physical or brain damage, and they can also result in death.
How Long Does DTs Last?
For some people, delirium tremens abates within just 72 hours. For others, it can remain and may even intensify for as long as 10 days. Whether or not the DTs manifest and whether or not they are severe depends upon a variety of factors including:
- Average alcohol consumption
- Length of alcohol addiction
- General health
and various personal risk factors. The way in which early withdrawal symptoms are managed largely determines a person’s experience with the DTs. Studies show that early interventions through medically supervised detox can limit both the duration and intensity of delirium tremens. In fact, in many instances, medically supervised detox can prevent the DTs from manifesting at all.
Risks of Delirium Tremens
Misfiring of the brain’s neurotransmitters isn’t an issue that solely impacts the central nervous system. The same neurotransmitters that are triggered by alcohol use play a hand in guiding, controlling, or assisting various functions throughout the body.
When a person enters into delirium tremens, they’re at risk of experiencing rapid and significant changes in their body. temperature, respiration, heart rate, and other basic vital signs. When these and other symptoms of the DTs aren’t identified and quickly mitigated, a person’s physical distress can spiral out of control.
Treating Delirium Tremens
At Mississippi Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, we have a variety of ways to safely and successfully manage and treat delirium tremens. More importantly, our medically managed detox services are designed to limit the likelihood of having the DTs occur at all. We know that strategic interventions during the earliest stages of alcohol withdrawal can make detoxing far safer and more comfortable for our clients. For our patients who are at high risk of experiencing the DTs, we offer:
- Anti-convulsant for stopping seizures or limiting their frequency and intensity
- Blood pressure medications
- Various options in pain medication
- Anti-psychotic drugs for preventing auditory, visual, or tactile hallucinations
We also have various options in in-house mental health support for helping our clients through this and all other stages of the alcohol detox process. From the moment that they arrive, our patients are constantly monitored to detect significant and abnormal changes in their vital signs. Once these are detected, we use targeted treatments and therapies for restoring and maintaining balance, comfort, and health.
If you or someone you love is preparing to start treatment for alcohol addiction, we can help. Taking part in our medically managed detox program is infinitely easier and much safer than going it alone. Call us today to find out more about our services or to speak with an admissions counselor.