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Delirium Tremens (DTs) Signs & Prevention

delirium tremens signs

Withdrawal delirium or delirium tremens (DTs) is a severe set of symptoms that people with alcohol use disorder can develop during any extended period of abstinence. If you’re addicted to alcohol, trying to go “cold turkey” at home is never a good idea. You will deal with the intense cravings that other addicts contend with. Detoxing from alcohol can also send your entire brain and body into a dangerous and potentially fatal level of functioning.

What Causes DTs?

Withdrawal delirium is a clear sign of chemical dependency. It means that the body’s central nervous system (CNS) has undergone changes so significant that it has actually lost the ability to continue functioning without drinking. For people with alcohol use disorder, detoxing is always best accomplished in a supervised environment and with the benefit of medically assisted treatment. This ensures that initial alcohol withdrawal symptoms do not intensify, and that withdrawal delirium is less likely to develop, and less likely to spiral out of control.

Even just a single drink can impair normal brain functioning for a short period of time. Chemical signals that are constantly being transmitted in the brain cells or neurons are disrupted by alcohol. This disruption is what causes inebriated individuals to:

  • Lose their inhibitions
  • Have difficulty focusing on complex tasks
  • Experience decreases in coordination and general cognitive functioning
  • Stumble, fall, or display other problems with balance

However, when the neurons are disrupted repeatedly by regular alcohol use, the brain makes an effort to compensate. It does so by increasing the intensity of its response to specific brain signals called neurotransmitters. Addiction or chemical dependency occurs when the brain continues overreacting to neurotransmitters even when a person is no longer actively drinking or no longer intoxicated.

When severe, this overreaction is what causes withdrawal symptoms, and ultimately the DTs. Given that the CNS controls all aspects of the body’s operations, numerous systems are affected.

Moreover, the longer that a person has been drinking, and the more alcohol that’s been regularly consumed; the more intense the withdrawal delirium is likely to be. Moderate detox symptoms for someone who’s been abusing alcohol for a relatively short period of time can include loss of appetite, shakiness, sweating, headaches, and mood swings. When delirium sets in, these symptoms can progress to include:

  • Full-body tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Shallow breathing and other dangerous respiratory changes
  • Seizures

Without access to trained medical support, withdrawal delirium can lead to permanent liver or heart damage and may be responsible for death.

How to Prevent Delirium Tremens

The absolute best way to prevent delirium tremens is by receiving professional, medically assisted detox. When people detox on their own, they often hope their withdrawal symptoms will remain mild to moderate. They hope that these symptoms will abate quickly. And that they’ll avoid the dramatic changes in physiological functioning that put them at risk for severe and potentially permanent damages.

In reality, however, withdrawal delirium can be effectively prevented by mitigating and minimizing the initial symptoms of detox. Efforts to address the physiological factors responsible for the shakiness, sweating, and loss of appetite can actually keep recovering alcoholics from experiencing more severe issues like hallucinations or seizures.

Medically assisted treatment acknowledges that alcohol use disorder isn’t the result of insufficient willpower or bad decision-making. It is instead the manifestation of many unseen changes that have occurred within a person’s brain as the result of heavy drinking. The professionals overseeing these services leverage therapies that offset the effects of these neurological changes so that all systems throughout the body can continue to perform normally despite over-activity within the brain’s neurotransmitters.

Throughout these programs, patients are routinely checked for significant changes in their vital signs. Dramatic increases or decreases in:

  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood sugar
  • Body temperature

are treated as evidence of distress. As needed, medication and other therapies are administered to restore equilibrium and balance. This way, the body, and its CNS can gradually adapt to being alcohol-free.

Once detox is complete, some patients may continue to rely on medications throughout the early portions of their ongoing addiction treatment. This support helps promote mood stability while easing any residual physical stress that’s caused by alcohol-related brain damage, and the brain’s ongoing efforts to readjust.

Delirium Tremens Signs and Prevention

For heavy and long-term drinkers, the early signs of withdrawal should always be viewed as the precursors for withdrawal delirium. The best way for heavy alcohol users to avoid severe withdrawal symptoms is by mitigating minor signs of distress early on. Waiting until these heighten and progress can actually increase the difficulty of future mitigation efforts.

For instance, excessive sweating indicates that the body is struggling to regulate its internal temperatures. Headaches can indicate changes in blood pressure and blood sugar levels that might prove incredibly dangerous if allowed to escalate. 

Just as the use of medication for limiting withdrawal effects is an important part of medically assisted detox, constant patient monitoring is also key. With medically assisted detox, patients are never on their own for extended periods of time. Their vitals are routinely checked, and they are regularly asked about how they feel.

Conversations between patients and support staff during the early and most challenging phases of detox are an opportunity to get helpful feedback. They’re also a time for assessing cognitive functioning, speaking abilities, and overall clarity of thought.

Detoxing in a professional facility is infinitely easier than doing it alone at home. More importantly, supervised detox is far safer. Dramatic stress signals being sent out by a body and brain that have been deprived of alcohol can be identified and minimized before any significant damage is done.

Patients are also exposed to therapies and other tools that teach them how to be more proactive in listening to and responding to themselves. With this help, moving on to more advanced phases of addiction recovery is often easier.

If you experience significant changes in how you feel and in how your body functions whenever you quit drinking, reach out for help before choosing to abstain entirely. Call us today at 833-991-2955 to learn more about our options in medically assisted detox. Find out how we can help you avoid experiencing the painful and life-threatening symptoms of withdrawal delirium.