What is Delirium Tremens?

There’s no cute way to put this – delirium tremens is one of the most frightening and dangerous effects of alcohol withdrawal. Commonly referred to as DTS, delirium tremens is a state of psychosis seen in chronic alcoholics upon cessation of alcohol use. If you’ve heard stories about alcoholics trying to fight imaginary spiders off their skin, or talking about pink elephants, or suffering extreme paranoia, you’ve heard about alcoholics suffering through DTs.

The history of DTs is nothing new. DTs have been referred to in popular literature, television, and movies since there was a name for it. There’s a famous scene in Huckleberry Finn where he describes his father going through DTs and a famous vintage French poster that shows a father suffering from DTS as his family watches with horror. Throughout history, DTS has been referred to as barrel fever, blue horror, pink spiders, and other terms. Delirium is a Latin term that translates to ‘going off the furrow.’

What Is Actually Happening?

You would think quitting cold turkey alcohol would be a good thing but medically that’s not the case. When you’re an alcoholic you are chemically dependent on alcohol. Dependent seems like hyperbole but it’s true – your brain cannot function without alcohol. When you quit drinking alcohol your brain doesn’t receive the same rush of endorphins it’s used to and what it now believes is normal – so it panics.

During withdrawal, your brain cannot function properly and the erratic impulses of neurotransmitters it sends can result in a myriad of symptoms like DTS. Symptoms of DTS can occur anywhere from a few hours to several days after an alcoholic quits drinking. The worst and most dangerous symptoms can occur anywhere from 24 hours to 5 days after alcohol cessation.

Does Everyone Get Delirium Tremens?

No. Not all alcoholics will experience DTs if they quit. There are varying estimates of how many alcoholics suffer through DTs through the New England Journal of Medicine recognizes occurrence in 4% of withdrawing alcoholics. There are ways to know if you’re more susceptible to DTs should you quit drinking cold turkey.

Can DTS Kill You?

Yes, you can die from delirium tremens, or more accurately from the symptoms. 2% of DTS patients receiving medical treatment die while 25% of DTS sufferers who don’t receive medical treatment die according to A Dictionary of Hallucinations. DTS is deadly serious but is much more manageable with medical help.

Susceptibility To DTS

Any alcoholic can experience DTS but you’re more likely to suffer if you have a long history of alcohol abuse or drink copious amounts of alcohol frequently.

Length of Alcohol Abuse

The longer your drinking career, the more likely you may experience DTS. Drinkers with a long history of alcohol abuse have taught their brains that they’re only okay when they’re drinking. If the brain has been used to alcohol for several decades, it may panic once you take it away.

Amount of Alcohol Abuse

The more you drink, the more susceptible you are to DTS. The more you drink, the more neurotransmitters you release and the faster you will become chemically dependent on alcohol. A brain that’s used to two to three beers a day will act much differently than a brain that’s used to a twelve-pack every day when you take the alcohol away.

Symptoms of Delirium Tremens

There are several symptoms of DTS which can onset rapidly. Anyone alcoholic suffering from the following symptoms should seek medical attention immediately – except for the last one.

  • Psychosis – Loss of touch with reality
  • Formication – A tactile hallucination. Sufferers of DTS often report bugs crawling on their skin
  • Auditory and Visual Hallucinations – Sufferers may talk to people who aren’t there or complain about a non-existent visual
  • Extreme anxiety including feelings of imminent death
  • Paranoia
  • Seizures – One of the more dangerous symptoms of DTS
  • Spiking Blood Pressure
  • Rapid Heart Rate
  • Fever
  • Profusive Sweating
  • Heart Attack – The physical symptoms of DTS like elevated blood pressure and rapid heart rate can lead to heart attack
  • Death

How to Avoid Deliriums Tremens

You can avoid the dreaded DTs by seeking treatment in a certified detox center, rehab facility, or hospital. DTs are caused by a sudden cessation of alcohol and its effect on your brain – but professional facilities know how to combat alcohol withdrawal.

Rather than force your body to go through immediate withdrawal, doctors and treatment professionals will taper your body and brain off alcohol. Before treatment doctors will get a full medical report and drinking history to properly wean you off alcohol with lowered health risks. Modern treatment facilities use benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and other drugs that have the same neuroglial effect of alcohol to stair-step you down to complete sobriety.  

If a medical emergency happens in a detox facility or treatment center, you’ll be able to receive treatment right away. If you try self-detox from alcohol at home your chances of getting DTS or dying are significantly higher.

Getting Help Today

If you or a loved one is an alcoholic and ready to get sober, do not try quitting by yourself or you could suffer through DTS. Before quitting, talk to your primary care physician or a treatment facility to figure out the safest way for you to get better right away. Once you have a plan in place you’ll be ready to sober up in a safe, controlled environment with only a slim chance of DTS taking control.

DTS is the scariest of all alcohol withdrawal symptoms and one of the most lethal. DTS happens during alcohol withdrawal so if you’re an alcoholic who wants to quit, get help immediately from a detox center or treatment facility. With the help of treatment, you can safely detox from alcohol and start your new life far from the fear of DTS.

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