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24 hours rehab
Immediate Access for help and advice

Delirium Tremens Explained

Delirium tremens, also known as alcohol withdrawal delirium, is a serious illness that affects people who have used alcohol heavily over a long period. Withdrawal symptoms occur when a person suddenly stops taking alcohol after prolonged use. The psychological effects of drinking are induced because alcohol reacts with neurotransmitters in the brain. Withdrawal symptoms occur after cessation because the brain has gotten used to functioning with the assistance of ethanol.

What Is Delirium Tremens?

This condition is the most serious withdrawal a person can experience when they suddenly quit alcohol. As many as 20% of people experience symptoms of alcohol abuse during their lifetime. Over 50% of people who quit drinking after a prolonged period, without medical supervision, experience withdrawal symptoms. Just over 5% of people who stop experience the cardiovascular collapse, profound confusion or autonomic hyperactivity characteristic of delirium tremens.

Delirium tremens can onset from 48 hours to 10 days after the individual has had their last drink. Without medical intervention, as many as 37% of all cases of alcohol withdrawal delirium end in mortality. The earlier the condition is diagnosed and treated, the better chance the person has of surviving.

Types of Delirium Tremens

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be divided into three categories, with delirium tremens as the most advanced.

  • Early Alcohol Withdrawal: The early symptoms of withdrawal can be fairly mild and usually occur within eight to 12 hours after a person’s first drink. This stage often lasts from one to three days but can last longer, depending on individual circumstances.
  • Late-Stage Alcohol Withdrawal: After the first few days, the symptoms often become increasingly more severe and uncomfortable. Sometimes they can occur as soon as 24 hours after a person stops drinking and may occur alongside early withdrawal symptoms.
  • Delirium Tremens: Onset is usually within 48 to 96 hours after the last drink, although it can happen as late as 10 days after cessation. The individual may experience intense feelings of agitation and/or have a sense of impending doom. Changes in breathing and heart rate that occur could be fatal; therefore, treatment must be sought as soon as possible.
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Causes of Delirium Tremens

All long-term, high-risk drinkers are at risk of developing alcohol withdrawal delirium. Low-risk drinking is defined as the government guideline of 14 units per week or below. Increased risk drinking is above 14 units but under 30 units for women and under 50 units for men. High-risk drinking is over 50 units for men and over 30 units for women.

Binge drinking is the most common type of problem drinking and is defined by a woman having more than four drinks in one sitting and a man having more than five. Delirium tremens are most often brought about after an individual has a heavy drinking binge.

Symptoms of Delirium Tremens

  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hallucinations
  • Tremors
  • Delirium
  • Slowed or increased heart rate
  • Deep Sleep
  • Excitement or fear
  • Fatigue
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Sensitivity to external stimuli
  • Disorientation
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