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delirium tremens
December 2, 2021

Delirium Tremens Treatment

Alcohol withdrawal is far more dangerous than “cold turkey” opiate withdrawal. Even before the pandemic stresses of 2020–2021 triggered a surge in overall drug-related fatalities, over 800 deaths in a year were traced to alcohol withdrawal effects. While that’s still a small minority of those who attempt to quit drinking, anyone who may be addicted to alcohol should consider the risk before cutting off the supply. The safest course is always to consult a doctor first. Delirium tremens should be taken seriously and planned for accordingly.

Delirium Tremens

Most alcohol withdrawal fatalities are due to delirium tremens (also called DTs, alcohol withdrawal delirium, or severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome), which occurs in up to 20 percent of untreated alcohol withdrawal cases. (Where a patient is under medical care, the risk drops to 5 percent because proper treatment can stop withdrawal symptoms from progressing to DTs.) People who have been drinking heavily for a long time are at the greatest risk, especially if they have other medical conditions or have become ill from alcohol withdrawal in the past.

“Typical” alcohol withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant enough: nausea, painful headaches, muscle tremors, insomnia, hyperactive “jitters.” A person experiencing DTs, however, loses mental connection to reality and goes into “autonomic overdrive,” with such serious effects as:

  • Extremely heavy perspiration
  • Ultrasensitivity to stimulation
  • Hallucinations
  • Dangerously accelerated heart rate
  • Soaring blood pressure
  • Unusually deep, long sleep—or coma
  • Respiratory failure
  • Seizures

More than 1 in 20 cases of delirium tremens are fatal—without medical treatment, 1 in 3.

Getting Treatment for Delirium Tremens

When a person is hospitalized for alcohol-addiction detox, medical staff monitor the patient’s condition, watch for delirium tremens and other withdrawal symptoms, and ensure the patient stays comfortable and well hydrated. Medication-assisted treatment is routine, usually involving carefully measured doses of benzodiazepines to mitigate symptoms. After the patient is detoxed, any remaining medication can be safely tapered off.

However, DTs can also attack without warning if someone is addicted to alcohol and misses a few “regular” drinks. If someone shows symptoms of delirium tremens—or if you feel them yourself—don’t wait to see if things get worse. Call for emergency medical help immediately, and be prepared to describe:

  • The exact symptoms
  • Why you suspect delirium tremens
  • The patient’s drinking habits
  • If there have been other alcohol withdrawal symptoms immediately preceding the episode, or in the patient’s drinking history
  • If known, time and nature of the most recent drink (most cases of delirium tremens begin after 2–3 days of abstinence)

Stay with the patient while awaiting help (but keep alert in case the mental struggle triggers violent behavior). Reassure them quietly. If they collapse, roll them into a side-lying recovery position to make breathing easier and minimize choking risks. If you’re alone and experiencing symptoms yourself, remove external stimulations if possible, and stay as quiet and comfortable as you can (preferably lying in recovery position) until help arrives.

The Problem Behind the Problem

Even without obvious delirium tremens, it’s wise to follow the above steps in any case of suspected alcohol withdrawal. Mild symptoms can worsen quickly, or can trigger life-threatening behavior (including alcohol overdose from careless attempts to satisfy cravings).

Once someone recovers from delirium tremens, the only sure way to avoid recurrence is to avoid consuming alcohol in the future—which means getting long-term treatment for alcohol use disorder. Few people manage to achieve lifelong sobriety without counseling and ongoing peer support.

Other things to do if recovering from alcoholism:

  • Know your “drinking triggers” (e.g., beer ads or parties) and make proactive plans to avoid them.
  • Work on rebuilding relationships and otherwise repairing damage done by your drinking.
  • Cultivate good physical-health habits (healthy eating, healthy sleep, healthy exercise).
  • Learn your natural talents and passions, and stay busy with relevant goals and priorities. Make your future all about living for something more fulfilling than alcohol!

Safe Withdrawal from Alcohol Addiction

Due to the risk of delirium tremens and other dangerous physical complications, no one should ever attempt alcohol detox without medical supervision. Beach House provides safe detoxification from alcohol (and other drugs) in a comfortable environment, plus post-detox care to minimize relapse risks. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you get permanently free from addiction.

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