Delirium Tremens

There's an old trope of alcoholics "seeing pink elephants" when they try to stop drinking. While delirium tremens may not take exactly that form, hallucinations can occur. Other harmful phenomena, up to and including death, can be mitigated by seeking help at an inpatient treatment center.

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An Overview Of Delirium Tremens

Delirium tremens, from the Latin meaning “trembling madness,” is a potential complication of alcohol withdrawal. As opposed to some other side effects of quitting drinking — like marked irritability, psychological craving, and milder mood-related disturbances — delirium tremens isn’t only unpleasant, it can be deadly.

The nature of, precursors to, and treatment options for delirium tremens are detailed below. It’s most important to remember that, if you or someone you know may be experiencing this often fatal condition, medical treatment should be sought without delay. Making an effort to quit drinking on one’s own, especially abruptly and after many years of heavy use, can have serious consequences.

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The Experience Of Delirium Tremens

Like many aspects of an individual’s drug and alcohol withdrawal and detoxification process, delirium tremens can be just that: individual, presenting with somewhat varied symptoms depending on the circumstances of the person in question.

Symptoms of delirium tremens can include:

  • Hyperactivity of the nervous system (agitation, anxiety, panic)
  • Insomnia or excessive sleepiness
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations and delusions
  • Tremors, also sometimes called “the shakes”
  • Death (in severe cases)

As might be indicated by the above list, several negative outcomes may be associated with the effects of delirium tremens. Patients may struggle to differentiate between fantasy and reality, and might harm themselves or others as a result. Additionally, seizures may result in grievous bodily harm, including death, especially if the patient has been prone to seizures before.

Furthermore, the frenzied state of the individual going through withdrawal may cause them to become aggressive or violent. This may not only result in physical harm to the patient or others, but it may also culminate in legal consequences. For many, especially and including those who have struggled with substance use disorders, getting in trouble with the law may be an all-too-familiar phenomenon. If this sounds familiar, contacting a treatment provider can help illuminate choices that won’t end in disaster for the patient, their loved ones, and the others that surround them.

Other Substances That Cause Delirium Tremens

Alcohol has largely and historically been the main contributing factor to the development of delirium tremens. However, other addictive substances can also lead to the condition. For example, though the information may not be widely known, Barbiturates can also result in a case of delirium tremens.

According to the British Medical Journal, a patient experienced disorientation and agitation along with visual hallucinations — specifically, he reported sights of figures appearing in the dimly-lit corners of his vision. So-called “shadow people” can sometimes be a hallmark of delirium tremens. The fact that other substances may contribute to this complication only highlights the importance of seeking proper treatment, no matter the drug in question.

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Treatment Options And Modalities

Fortunately, getting treatment in an inpatient care facility can greatly reduce the health risks and negative outcomes associated with delirium tremens. Patients going through withdrawal may benefit from round-the-clock care, access to a therapist who can talk them through what they’re experiencing, and a variety of treatment medications that may be used to ease or even prevent the symptoms of delirium tremens.

The medications that may be prescribed to treat delirium tremens include but are not limited to:

  • Antipsychotic drugs, like Haldol
  • Anti-seizure drugs, like Neurontin
  • Bendodiazepines, like Xanax
  • Sedatives, like Librium

In addition to pharmacology, other treatment modalities may be offered. For example, a study found that those struggling with alcohol abuse were less likely to relapse when shown archived video footage of their experience going through delirium tremens. Holistic approaches, like yoga and meditation, may help as well; the severity of the condition will likely go a long way toward dictating which modalities are prescribed.

As a result of taking a course of these treatments, patients may experience fewer or less severe seizures, hallucinations, and fits of agitation or anxiety than they might otherwise. The safety, security, and confidentiality of an inpatient care environment can allow for professionals to prescribe exactly the medications that are needed as well as monitor for side effects or adverse reactions and provide tailored care to each individual patient.

Getting Care And Getting Better

No matter your situation, help is available. Too often, people who struggle with drinking too much (or misusing any substance) do so in silence, either due to shame, a misunderstanding of addiction, or a fear of consequences.

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Ironically, however, the gravest of consequences can occur if proper treatment isn’t sought. Delirium tremens is a textbook example of what can happen when addiction spirals out of control. If you or someone you love is worried about what might happen during detox, contact a treatment provider. They can help you understand your treatment options now.



William Henken

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  • Will Henken earned a B.A. in Advertising and Public Relations from the University of Central Florida. He has had his work published in the Orlando Sentinel, and has previous experience crafting copy for political action committees and advocacy groups dedicated to social justice. Addiction and mental health are personal subjects for him, and his greatest hope is that he can give a helping hand to those seeking healthy and lasting recovery.

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Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional:

David Hampton

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  • David embarked on his journey into sobriety in June of 2005, which led him to his current career path as a Certified Professional Addiction Recovery Coach in private practice in Greater Nashville. David is also a public speaker and the author of two books. David is cohost of the weekly Positive Sobriety Podcast, as well as being a frequent contributor to various articles and recovery based materials. As a member of the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), David works closely with area treatment centers, recovery orientated nonprofit organizations, as well as being a keynote speaker for various recovery-focused events.

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