The Delirium Tremens

Withdrawing from alcohol is not only excruciatingly painful, but it can be highly lethal. One of the most dangerous and distressing symptoms of withdrawal from chronic alcohol abuse is delirium tremens. Delirium tremens (Latin for ‘shaking frenzy’) involves a sudden and severe change in one’s nervous system and mental system, and typically affects those who stop drinking suddenly after a period of 10 or more years. Delirium tremens can also be caused by a head injury, severe illness, or infection in people who are afflicted with long-term chronic alcoholism. There are several differences between alcohol withdrawal symptoms and the DTs – both sets of symptoms are listed below.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nervousness
  • Shaking/trembling
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Heart palpitations

Symptoms of Delirium Tremens

  • Body tremors
  • Changes in mental function
  • Agitation, irritability
  • Confusion, disorientation
  • Decreased attention span
  • Deep sleep that lasts up to several days
  • Delirium
  • Hallucinations
  • Rapid changes in mood
  • Sensitivity to light, touch and sound
  • Stupor, sleepiness, fatigue

Delirium tremens is the most serious form of ethanol withdrawal, and can ultimately (and quickly) lead to total cardiovascular collapse. Because DT has such an exceedingly high mortality rate, any symptoms require immediate medical attention. Several neurotransmitters within the brain are directly affected by chronic alcohol consumption. During alcohol withdrawal, the loss of GABA-A receptor stimulation causes a reduction in chloride flux and in turn is likely to produce or contribute to tremors, anxiety, seizures, tachycardia (increased heart rate), and diaphoresis (profusely sweating).

In the United States, less than 50% of alcoholics experience serious withdrawal symptoms after discontinuing use. Out of those who do, only around 5% will undergo symptoms of delirium tremens. Before pharmacotherapy was available, a staggering 35% of DT sufferers experienced mortality. Currently, the death rates range between 5 and 15%. In the majority of cases, the DTs are treated with benzodiazepines and other pharmaceuticals, as well as antipsychotics if necessary. Because the symptoms of delirium tremens can be so severe and life-threatening, if you or someone you love has been exhibiting signs of alcohol withdrawal or has decided to cease use, it is important that he or she check him or herself into a professional, medically monitored detoxification center immediately.