Delirium tremens is a disorder involving sudden and severe mental changes (psychosis) or neurologic changes (including seizures) caused by abruptly stopping the use of alcohol. Rapid pulse rate, elevated blood pressure, and temperature elevation also may be present.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors Return to top
Delirium tremens can occur after a period of heavy alcohol 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 use of alcohol. It is most common in people who have a history of experiencing alcohol withdrawal when alcohol is stopped, especially in those who drink the equivalent of 7 to 8 pints of beer (or 1 pint of "hard" alcohol) per day for several months, and in those with a history of habitual alcohol use or alcoholism that has existed for more than 10 years.
Symptoms occur because of the toxic effects of alcohol on the brain and nervous system. They may be severe and progress rapidly.
Symptoms Return to top
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
Feeling jumpy or nervous
Irritability or easily excited
Emotional volatility, rapid emotional changes
Difficulty thinking clearly
Palpitations (sensation of feeling the heart beat)
Headache, general, pulsating
Sweating, especially the palms of the hands or the face
Loss of appetite
Insomnia, difficulty falling asleep
Mental status changes
Mood changes rapidly
Decreased attention span
Hallucinations, visual hallucinations (snakes, bugs, etc.) are most common
Sensory hyperacuity (highly sensitive to light, sound, touch, etc.)
Delirium (severe, acute loss of mental functions)
Decreased mental status
Stuporous, somnolent, lethargic
Deep sleep that persists for a day or longer
Usually occurs after acute symptoms
Usually generalized tonic-clonic seizures
Most common in first 24 - 48 hours
Most common in people with previous alcohol withdrawal complications
Additional symptoms that may be occur:
Note: Symptoms most commonly occur within 72 hours after the last drink, but may occur up to 7 to 10 days after the last drink. Symptoms may progress rapidly.
Signs and tests Return to top
Delirium tremens is a medical emergency. The health care provider should be consulted promptly.
An examination of the neuromuscular system may show an increased startle reflex, rapid rhythmic muscle tremor, or other changes indicating alcohol withdrawal. Evidence of increased autonomic function -- such as profuse sweating -- may be present.
There may be symptoms of dehydration or malnutrition, and signs indicating electrolyte disturbances. An eye inspection may show abnormalities of eye muscle movement -- such as lid lag. The heart rate may be rapid, and there may be an irregular heart beat. The blood pressure may be normal, elevated, or low.
A serum toxicology screen is usually positive for alcohol. Serum chemistry (chem-20) may show electrolyte disturbances, especially decreased levels of potassium and magnesium. An ECG (electrocardiogram) may show arrhythmias. An EEG (electroencephalogram) may be performed to rule out other causes of seizures.
Treatment Return to top
This is an emergency condition. The goals of treatment are saving the patient's life, treating the immediate symptoms, and preventing complications. Long-term preventive treatment may begin after initial treatment of the acute condition. Hospitalization is required. Vital signs (temperature, pulse, rate of breathing, blood pressure), and fluid and electrolyte status are monitored, and abnormalities are treated as appropriate.
Seizures and cardiovascular conditions, such as heart arrhythmias, are treated as appropriate. This may include lifesaving or life-support measures, anticonvulsant medications such as phenytoin, or other medications. Clonidine may reduce cardiovascular symptoms, and helps reduce anxiety. Central nervous system depressants and sedatives may be required, often in large doses, to reduce symptoms.
Treatment may require maintenance of a sedated state for a week or more until withdrawal is complete. Benzodiazepine medications such as diazepam are often useful to provide sedation. Diazepam is also useful to treat seizures as well as anxiety and tremors.
Hallucinations are treated similarly to any acute psychotic episode, with hospitalization as needed. Cautious use of antipsychotic medications, such as haloperidol, may be necessary in some cases.
A "drying out" period may be appropriate. No alcohol is allowed during this time. Treatment for alcohol use or alcoholism is recommended. This may include psychologic interventions, social supports such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), behavior modification, or other interventions.
Testing and treatment for other medical problems associated with use of alcohol is necessary. This may include disorders such as alcoholic liver disease, blood clotting disorders, alcoholic neuropathy, heart disorders (such as alcoholic cardiomyopathy), chronic brain syndromes (such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome).
Support Groups Return to top
For additional resources, see alcoholism support group.
Expectations (prognosis) Return to top
Delirium tremens is serious and may be life-threatening. Symptoms such as sleeplessness, feeling tired, and emotional instability may persist for a year or more.