Delirium Tremens (DTs): The Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome from Hell

Imagine that you're walking along a city sidewalk. You round a corner and suddenly – there in front of you – is a giant grizzly bear. What happens next? You get an adrenaline rush, your heart races, your blood pressure shoots up, you shake like a leaf, your pupils get large as saucers, your hairs stand on end, and you run like heck. Do you have a strong mental picture of this? Good. Hold that thought; we'll come back to it.

Delirium tremens, also known as the DTs, is the most serious of several syndromes that can occur when someone who is physically dependent on alcohol stops drinking. By serious, I mean that people with this condition can die. Even with hospital treatment the death rate can be 1-5%, but without treatment it could be 20%. Even convulsive seizures – another alcohol withdrawal syndrome – are less likely to be lethal than the DTs.

Symptoms of DTs typically start 2-4 days after the last drink in someone with prior heavy and prolonged consumption of alcohol. Earliest signs of DTs can be the three T's – temperature elevation, tremor and tachycardia (rapid heartbeat). The affected individual can experience anxiety, restlessness, nausea, and impaired sleep. By the time delirium tremens becomes fully developed, it includes the entire battery of "grizzly bear" symptoms mentioned above. These occur because a portion of the nervous system is responsible for regulating basic bodily processes, the sympathetic system, jumps into overdrive.

But DTs involve much, much more. The parts of the brain responsible for perception and thought go haywire. Ordinary lights and sounds seem excessively harsh. The afflicted individual becomes confused, agitated, and even psychotic. He or she might even fail to identify family members. There is constant and sometimes incoherent talk. Ordinary components of the environment, like patterns on wallpaper, can be perceived as frightful threats, like spiders or snakes.

Moreover, hallucinations can occur. These can include terrifying sights, sounds or smells that others in the room can not detect. In addition, there can be distracting sensations as if the skin is being touched by insects or other unseen intruders.

At first, the person in DTs might have lucid intervals in which he or she makes appropriate conversation, but then becomes more continuously inaccessible to questions. Subsequently, the symptoms subside usually in a matter of days and recovery can even be heard.

What makes these terrible things happen? The evidence to date suggests that in people with heavy and prolonged drinking, the brain gets used to alcohol's constant presence, and the normal chatter among brain cells no longer gets toned down by alcohol like it does in the brains of occasional drinkers. The brains of heavy drinkers probably accomplish this by reducing the number of locations on brain cells where the natural inhibitory chemical, GABA (gamma-amino-butyric acid), can act to slow things down.

So what if alcohol is suddenly removed from the picture? In that case, the brain's GABA has fewer locations on which it can act to put on the brakes. As a consequence, the brain's cells become unmanageably over-active, and the symptoms of delirium tremens ensue.

DTs are a medical emergency requiring hospitalization, generally in an intensive care unit. The patient needs intravenous fluids, vitamins, nutrition, and correction of salt-and-water imbalances in the bloodstream. Drugs known as benzodiazepines are usually administrated to relieve the over-excitation of brain cells. The medical team searches for complications, like infections or irregular heartbeats, that may require other treatments. Medical personnel monitor the patient frequently. Family and friends provide valuable assistance by keeping the patient calm.

But in delirium tremens the old adage applications – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best case is the one that does not happen. Of course, this does not mean that a patient with alcohol dependence should continue drinking. Rather, it means that professional help should be enlisted in order to withdraw from alcohol safely.

This begs the question of who has alcohol dependence in the first place. More than one set of yardsticks exist, but the "CAGE" questionnaire provides a simple and effective screen in which the letters of the word correspond to each of four questions:

C – Have you ever felt you should CUT down on your drinking?

A – Have people ANNOYED you by criticizing your drinking?

G – Have you ever felt bad or GUILTY about your drinking?

E – Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover (EYE-opener)?

A "yes" answer to one of the four questions raises the possibility of alcohol dependence. A "yes" answer to two of the questions makes alcohol dependence likely, and help should be requested.

(C) 2005 by Gary Cordingley

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