man suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms

First, what does it mean if someone has delirium tremens? Delirium tremens is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that can become extremely dangerous. Alcohol withdrawal with delirium tremens symptoms often occur together, although not everyone withdrawing from alcohol will experience delirium tremens. Alcohol withdrawal and delirium tremens can wreak havoc on a person’s mental and physical health. In particular, the normal functioning of the central nervous system can be severely disrupted. 

What Is Delirium Tremens?

What is delirium tremens? Since 1813, medical professionals began recognizing delirium tremens as a clinical disorder closely associated with extreme alcohol abuse. Delirium tremens is a form of severe alcohol withdrawal that commonly occurs two days after a chronic alcohol user abruptly stops drinking. Delirium tremens alcohol withdrawal has a predicted mortality rate of up to 37% of individuals who do not receive treatment for this condition. 

Causes of Delirium Tremens in Alcohol Withdrawal

What causes delirium tremens? Delirium tremens typically is caused by an individual who abruptly stops drinking or does not consume enough food after a period of heavy drinking. Alternatively, delirium tremens can be caused by subsequent infections, head injuries or illnesses in individuals who heavily use alcohol.

In particular, delirium tremens occurs more often in people who have experienced some form of alcohol withdrawal before. People who excessively drink for more than ten years or who consume excessive amounts of wine, beer or liquor per day for several months are more likely to experience delirium tremens than others who heavily drink sporadically. 

Exactly how much alcohol causes delirium tremens? It is estimated that the following quantities of alcohol per day can cause delirium tremens after several months of drinking: 

  • Wine: 1.8 to 2.4 liters/day
  • Beer: 3.3 to 3.8 liters/day
  • Liquor: 0.5 liters/day

There are also specific risk factors associated with delirium tremens and alcohol withdrawal. Such risk factors include: 

  • Experiencing delirium tremens in the past
  • Having another illness at the same time
  • Old age
  • Experiencing severe symptoms during previous withdrawal or detoxification periods
  • Having low or decreased potassium levels

Signs and Symptoms of Delirium Tremens Due to Alcohol Withdrawal

What are the signs and symptoms of delirium tremens? There are many different symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal and delirium tremens that range in severity. Some signs of delirium tremens may include

Mental/behavioral symptoms: 

  • Becoming delirious 
  • Sudden confusion
  • Decreased mental capacity
  • Aggression or irritability
  • Fearful attitude and/or excited
  • Experiencing hallucinations
  • Rapid mood changes
  • Anxiousness
  • Depression

Physical Symptoms

  • Bodily shaking
  • Long periods of sleeping
  • Rapid energy changes
  • Inability to sit still
  • Increased sensitivity to sound, light or touch
  • Increased tiredness
  • Headaches 
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting 
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Pale and clammy skin
  • Sweating
  • Fever
  • Body aches

Risks of Severe Alcohol Withdrawal with Delirium Tremens

Unfortunately, besides the negative physical and mental symptoms that an individual can experience, there are severe risks associated with alcohol withdrawal and delirium tremens. Severe delirium tremens may lead to: 

  • Becoming disoriented
  • Experiencing seizures
  • High blood pressure
  • High body temperature
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Chest pain
  • Breathing problems 
  • Death

If alcohol withdrawal and delirium tremens does not lead to death, people may still struggle with the long-term repercussions and complications of this condition. Such complications can include

  • Frequent and intense mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Falling due to seizures
  • Injuries due to confused or delirious states
  • Permanent damage to the heart (e.g. abnormal heartbeat)

How Long Does Delirium Tremens Last?

How long does delirium tremens last? How long delirium tremens lasts depends on the person and their health history. Typically, delirium tremens symptoms start as early as two-four days after not drinking. However, delirium tremens symptoms may start as late as seven-ten days after the last alcoholic beverage. Symptoms tend to worsen the longer a person goes without a drink.

Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium Tremens Treatment

There are various delirium tremens alcohol withdrawal treatments. Generally, medical professionals aim to keep the patient safe, prevent further complications and to relieve any discomfort a patient feels during this physically and mentally challenging time.  Alcohol withdrawal from delirium tremens treatment requires a stay at a hospital or similar medical facility. 

Treatment for alcohol withdrawal delirium tremens may include different tests which assess a person’s vital signs and electrolyte levels in the blood. An individual may receive medication to prevent seizures or to treat any underlying mental health or physical health conditions. After an initial hospital stay, it is highly recommended that a person received alcohol addiction treatment at an outpatient or inpatient rehabilitation facility. 

Do you or a loved one struggle with alcohol addiction? Are you worried about delirium tremens or have you experienced it at some point in the past? Contact the Orlando Recovery Center to discuss treatment options for alcohol addiction and any other co-occurring mental health conditions. Contact a representative today to begin your journey to recovery. 

Sources: “Delirium tremens.” January 10, 2019. August 22, 2019. 

Rahman, Abdul; Paul, Manju. “Delirium Tremens (DT).” NCBI Bookshelf, StatPearls, November 18, 2018. Accessed August 22, 2019. 

Medical Disclaimer: Orlando Recovery Center aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.