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In the UK, alcohol is generally seen as far more socially acceptable than other types of substance misuse and especially illegal drugs. It is widely available and there is a widespread drinking culture, but alcohol can be every bit as addictive and destructive as any illegal or prescription drug. Alcohol abuse is a contributory factor in a large number of illnesses and conditions such as Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome.
And, when it comes to physical dependency and withdrawal symptoms, alcohol can be far worse than many other substances. Cocaine and marijuana, for example, tend to produce mainly psychological withdrawal symptoms. These can be very serious in their own rights but alcohol detox can lead to a range of severe physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms.
At the more serious end of the spectrum is delirium tremens, also known as the DTs. It can last for a number of days and be very unpleasant and dangerous. In the worst cases it can even be fatal, which is why it is always best to undergo detoxification in a medically supervised environment such as rehab.
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What is delirium tremens?
Delirium tremens is the medical name given to a particularly severe form of alcohol withdrawal. It is worth noting that not all the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are delirium tremens and that the DTs kick in some time after other withdrawal symptoms. The alcohol scale CIWA-Ar provides one way to measure the severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which can vary widely depending on the individual, the length and severity of alcohol intake and a number of other factors.
Delirium tremens symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms, in general, can be very unpleasant and can include a range of physical and psychological effects such as:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Headaches and muscle aches
- Mood swings
- Fever and chills
- Heart palpitations
- Increased heart rate and/or blood pressure
Some of the symptoms of delirium tremens are similar to other withdrawal symptoms, from which they tend to develop, but may be more severe. They may also include:
- Tics and tremorous – commonly known as ‘the shakes’
- Visual, auditory or tactile hallucinations
Some of the most severe symptoms such as alcohol withdrawal delirium and withdrawal seizures
can be very serious and potentially life-threatening. Undergoing detox in rehabilitation allows for medical supervision and appropriate treatment where required.
Delirium tremens causes and risk factors
Delirium tremens stems from alcohol consumption over a long period so first, we should consider what causes alcohol addiction to develop. People with alcohol use disorders find it difficult to moderate their drinking and so are at more risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms that may include delirium tremens.
Heavy alcohol use over a long period can change the way the brain and nervous system works and, when it is suddenly removed, the system reacts.
Some risk factors include:
- Drinking more heavily prior to withdrawal
- Previous experience of withdrawal symptoms
- Underlying physical and mental health conditions
- Certain medications
- Age – the DTs are more likely to occur in older drinkers
Delirium tremens diagnosis
A delirium tremens diagnosis may be made by a medical professional dependent on the symptoms exhibited, sometimes using a tool like the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment scale. Medical professionals will be able to make this diagnosis from rehab or other clinical settings.
How long do delirium tremens last?
Delirium tremens usually arises after you have been suffering from other withdrawal symptoms and typically last around five days, although sometimes it may be longer.
Some symptoms, such as exhaustion and mood swings can also last a lot longer. Going through this process can also have a lasting effect on your mental health and some mental health treatments or dual diagnosis treatments – where a mental health condition and addiction are treated at the same time – may be required.
Delirium tremens treatment
If you are at risk of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, including delirium tremens, it is strongly advised that you seek medical help or undergo a medically supervised detox. This will allow experts to observe you as you go through withdrawal and intervene when necessary.
The treatment of alcohol withdrawal may involve prescription medications to manage many of the symptoms and other medical interventions if deemed appropriate and necessary.
How can I get help?
If you are suffering from alcohol addiction it is always best to seek professional help as soon as possible. There are a number of addiction treatment options available but residential alcohol rehab has been shown to be the most effective way of dealing with a serious addiction problem.
You will be able to undergo the withdrawal process in a medically supervised setting, which can be crucial if you experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as delirium tremens. Beyond that, a range of therapies and treatments will help you to deal with the root causes of your addiction and develop coping strategies to avoid relapse.