Withdrawing from alcohol is an uncomfortable process, and even dangerous for some. Sometimes, among the withdrawal symptoms of shaky hands, sweating, nausea, vomiting and insomnia, long-time users coming off alcohol can experience delirium tremens (DTs), which can be life-threatening.

What Is Delirium Tremens?

DTs, also known as “The Shakes,” is a form of mental or nervous system changes that occurs when a person stops drinking alcohol after drinking heavily. DTs most often occurs in individuals who drank excessively for more than 10 years and stopped suddenly. Symptoms of DTs often manifest within 48 to 96 hours after the last drink, but they can occur up to seven to 10 days after the last drink, in some cases.

How Long Does Delirium Tremens Last?

This is a commonly asked question of those who are concerned about the symptoms associated with the cessation of alcohol consumption. DTs can last only 24 hours for some people, but for others, it can last up to five days. The amount of time is typically based on how long the person had been drinking before seeking treatment and how much alcohol they drank over that period of time.

What Causes Delirium Tremens?

Though the exact cause of delirium tremens is sometimes debated, one of the most commonly thought reasons for it is that drinking excessive amounts of alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to regulate GABA, a neurotransmitter.

When someone drinks heavily, it is believed that the body mistakes alcohol for GABA and, in turn, decreases the production of the neurotransmitter. Therefore, when a chronic alcoholic stops drinking, and alcohol levels drop, the body believes there is not enough GABA to function properly, leading to DTs.

This can last for different amounts of time, depending on the patient. Current Psychiatry states that “The brain seems to compensate for alcohol’s enhancement of GABA (inhibitory) neurons by up-regulating excitatory neurons (glutamate).

Alcohol has been shown to have some effects on neurons. The implication is that withdrawing alcohol triggers an “excitatory state” until the brain can readjust the delicate balance between excitation and inhibition, a process that takes weeks to months.”

Symptoms of Delirium Tremens

Symptoms of DTs can include:

    • Body tremors
    • Changes in mental function
    • Confusion
    • Decreased attention span
    • Deep sleep lasting for more than a day
    • Delirium
    • Quick mood changes
    • Hallucinations
    • Restlessness
    • Fatigue

In severe cases, DTs can include seizures. These seizures are usually a type called tonic-clonic in which the entire body shakes violently, and are most likely between six to 48 hours after the last drink.

Treating Delirium Tremens

The majority of the time, an individual going through DTs will be hospitalized so that they can be monitored. A common treatment for DTs is to keep the person sedated using a benzodiazepine such as Librium or Valium. The reason for this sedation is that the drugs allow the excitability of the nervous system to be suppressed, reducing the symptoms of DTs.

Though managed well under the proper care, in 5 to 15 percent of patients, DTs is fatal.

If you or a loved-one is at a high-risk for experiencing delirium tremens, contact us today.


Written by: Beth Leipholtz

Beth is a newspaper reporter and graphic designer from Minnesota, who writes about the realities of getting sober young. Follow her on Twitter.

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What You Need to Know About Delirium Tremens (DTs)
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What You Need to Know About Delirium Tremens (DTs) was last modified: July 20th, 2017 by The Recovery Village