Delirium Tremens (DT’s)

Delirium tremens (‘the shaking madness’), often known as ‘the DT’s’, is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal, which involves sudden and severe mental or neurological changes.

Causes

Delirium tremens can occur after a period of heavy drinking, especially when the person does not eat enough food. It may also be triggered by head injury, infection, or illness in people with a history of heavy alcohol use.

  • It is most common in people who have a history of alcohol withdrawal.
  • It is especially common in those who drink the equivalent of 4-5 pints of wine or 7-8 pints of beer (or 1 pint of “hard” alcohol) every day for several months.
  • It also commonly affects people who have had a history of alcohol misuse or alcoholism for more than 10 years.

Symptoms

Symptoms most commonly occur within 72 hours after the last drink, but may occur up to 10 days after the last drink. Symptoms may get worse rapidly, and can include …

  • Body tremors
  • Mental status changes
    • Agitation, irritability
    • Confusion, disorientation
    • Decreased attention span
    • Decreased mental status
      • Deep sleep that persists for a day or longer
      • Stupor, sleepiness, lethargy
      • Usually occurs after acute symptoms
    • Delirium (severe, acute loss of mental functions)
    • Excitement
    • Fear
    • Hallucinations (such as seeing or feeling things that are not present are most common)
    • Highly sensitive to light, sound, touch
    • Increased activity
    • Mood changes rapidly
    • Restlessness, excitement

Additional symptoms that may occur:

  • Chest pain
  • Fever
  • Stomach pain

From the Latin meaning ‘Trembling Madness’, the threat of delirium tremens is rather understated by its colloquial names such as ‘the heebie-jeebies’ or ‘jazz hands’. It is in fact a terrifying warning of the dangers of prolonged alcohol abuse.

Though it is possible to contract Delirium Tremens from a blow to the head or as a symptom of illness, it is more widely recognised as the result of long term heavy alcohol misuse. The ‘DTs’ however are not the slight shaking and nausea they are associated with but a very severe form of alcohol withdrawal that can suddenly and dramatically change the sufferers neurological make up. As a condition it quite rightly deserves Medical Emergency status.

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