It’s commonly believed that alcohol is less dangerous than so-called “hard” drugs like cocaine and meth. This is wrong for several reasons, not the least of which is alcohol’s easy availability and frequency of use. Roughly half of American adults drink, and more than 25% reported binge drinking in the past month in a 2019 study. Nearly 13% of Americans may have alcohol abuse disorder, commonly called alcoholism, and one in eight report being unable to quit drinking. Alcohol abuse is even more serious than the numbers alone suggest, since heavy drinking is likely to cause physical dependence and a dangerous withdrawal symptom called delirium tremens or DTs.
DTs were first described in the early 1800s, when the treatment of alcohol abuse was in its infancy. Today, it’s a known hazard of alcohol detox that affects roughly 5% of chronic, heavy users. This is a disturbing and potentially lethal complication of alcohol withdrawal that has to be addressed during the earliest stages of rehab. Because of the danger of uncontrolled DTs, the intake process for alcohol treatment has to involve a medical assessment and close monitoring by a doctor who can intervene to help manage the symptoms of severe withdrawal.
What Is Delirium Tremens?
Delirium tremens is one of the most commonly reported complications for people in the early stages of alcohol abuse recovery. The condition occurs in heavy drinkers because of the effect alcohol has on the central nervous system. Alcohol is a sedative, which means it slows down the brain’s thought processes and makes people feel fatigued and sleepy. The brain responds to this by changing the way it works, generally by overstimulating the motor cortex and anxiety mechanisms, both of which have been impaired by the alcohol. As long as alcohol remains present, this balance remains relatively stable, but when the person stops drinking, all that’s left is the brain’s escalated arousal and excitement. Without the dampening effects of large amounts of alcohol, this may trigger DTs.
Certain factors make you more likely to develop DTs during your withdrawal. These include:
- Binge drinking immediately prior to withdrawal
- Underlying health issues, such as liver problems or heart disease
- Certain psychiatric disorders
- Old age
- General poor health, or the poor diet that’s common among heavy users of alcohol
When you arrive at rehab, your doctor will screen you for these warning signs. It helps the medical staff predict how likely you are to develop DTs and be ready to treat the symptoms if they occur.
What Are the Signs of Delirium Tremens?
The symptoms of delirium tremens develop gradually, and only rarely do they come on full-force all at once. Over time, the usual withdrawal symptoms worsen into severe agitation, anxiety or irritability. As the condition worsens, people may experience:
- Dizziness or fainting
- Racing heartbeat, heavy sweating, nausea, vomiting and exhaustion
- Hallucinations, which may be visual, auditory or both
- Tremors that can rapidly turn into seizures without medical intervention
- Left untreated, possible death by heart failure
Your care team will monitor your condition closely during the early stages of detox. If you show any of these signs, you may be given medication to help reduce or stop the worst of the symptoms.
How Common Are DTs?
DTs don’t strike everybody, but they aren’t terribly rare for heavy users. Roughly 5% of long-term alcoholics develop DTs to some severity during their detoxification, with the symptoms usually being mild to moderate and generally treatable without heroic measures. Older adults and people who’ve been drinking heavily for a long time are more likely to develop a severe case of DTs, which may require inpatient treatment at a hospital.
How Is Delirium Tremens Treated?
Don’t take DTs lightly. If you’re a heavy user of alcohol, it may not be possible to predict how the detox process will go for you. Trying to “dry out” on your own at home really shouldn’t be done without at least some medical supervision, and the process can only safely be done somewhere a medical team can get to you quickly if you need them.
If you develop the signs of DTs, your doctor may choose to admit you to the hospital, possibly into the ICU, for 24-hour monitoring and treatment. If this happens, you’ll be given IV fluids to keep hydrated and sedatives to help reduce the severity of the DTs. Common medications for this include:
- Benzodiazepines (Ativan, Valium, Librium) to reduce anxiety and tremors
- Barbiturates (phenobarbital) to supplement the other sedatives
- Antipsychotics (Haldol, Thorazine) to manage the hallucinations
While treatment for DTs can be drastic, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Very few people who develop delirium tremens during detox die from it if they’re getting proper medical attention from a care team familiar with the issue. If you’re detoxing in a clinical setting that’s set up for alcohol treatment, you’re almost certain to get the appropriate treatment and make a full recovery from these early stage withdrawal symptoms.
Getting Help With Alcoholism
If you’re worried about how much you drink or you’ve noticed the negative effects alcohol has had on your life, it may be time to quit. Many people fear stopping their lifelong alcohol abuse, and the specter of dangerous withdrawal symptoms doesn’t make them feel any more confident. These aren’t good reasons to avoid treatment, as the longer you drink the worse your potential withdrawal can get. Around 95% of people who detox from alcohol abuse either don’t develop DTs at all or have such mild symptoms that it doesn’t get diagnosed as delirium tremens. If you’re in the other 5%, it’s more important than ever for you to get the help that you need with a caring team of professionals who know how to keep you safe and help you through the worst of the process.
You don’t have to face withdrawal, rehabilitation and delirium tremens on your own. Call us today at (833) 596-3502 to speak with a compassionate counselor who knows what you’re going through and is here to help. We take calls 24/7, and together we can get you on the road to a safe detox and a lifetime free from alcohol dependence and abuse. Reach out to get the help you need today.