Delirium tremens (DTs) is a rapid onset of confusion usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol. When it occurs, it is often three days into the withdrawal symptoms and lasts for two to three days. People may also see or hear things other people do not. Physical effects may include shaking, shivering, irregular heart rate, and sweating. Occasionally, a very high body temperature or seizures may result in death. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to experience withdrawal from.
Delirium tremens typically only occurs in people with a high intake of alcohol for more than a month. A similar syndrome may occur with benzodiazepine and barbiturate withdrawal. Withdrawal from stimulants such as cocaine does not have major medical complications. In a person with delirium tremens it is important to rule out other associated problems such as electrolyte abnormalities, pancreatitis, and alcoholic hepatitis.
Prevention is by treating withdrawal symptoms. If delirium tremens occurs, aggressive treatment improves outcomes. Treatment in a quiet intensive care unit with sufficient light is often recommended. Benzodiazepines are the medication of choice with diazepam, lorazepam, chlordiazepoxide, and oxazepam all commonly used. They should be given until a person is lightly sleeping. The antipsychotic haloperidol may also be used. The vitamin thiamine is recommended. Mortality without treatment is between 15% and 40%. Currently death occurs in about 1% to 4% of cases.
About half of people with alcoholism will develop withdrawal symptoms upon reducing their use. Of these, three to five percent develop DTs or have seizures. The name delirium tremens was first used in 1813; however, the symptoms were well described since the 1700s. The word "delirium" is Latin for "going off the furrow," a plowing metaphor. It is also called shaking frenzy and Saunders-Sutton syndrome. Nicknames include barrel-fever, blue horrors, bottleache, bats, drunken horrors, elephants, gallon distemper, quart mania, pink spiders, among others.
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