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Alternative namesDelirium tremens is a disorder involving sudden and severe mental changes ( psychosis ) or neurologic changes (including seizures ) caused by abruptly stopping the use of alcohol. Rapid pulse rate, elevated blood pressure, and temperature elevation also may be present.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Delirium tremens can occur after a period of heavy alcohol drinking, especially when the person does not eat enough food.
It may also be triggered by head injury, infection, or illness in people with a history of heavy use of alcohol. It is most common in people who have a history of experiencing alcohol withdrawal when alcohol is stopped, especially in those who drink the equivalent of 7 to 8 pints of beer (or 1 pint of "hard" alcohol) per day for several months, and in those with a history of habitual alcohol use or alcoholism that has existed for more than 10 years.
Signs and tests
Delirium tremens is a medical emergency. The health care provider should be consulted promptly.
There may be symptoms of dehydration or malnutrition , and signs indicating electrolyte disturbances. An eye inspection may show abnormalities of eye muscle movement -- such as lid lag. The heart rate may be rapid, and there may be an irregular heart beat. The blood pressure may be normal, elevated, or low.
This is an emergency condition. The goals of treatment are saving the patient's life, treating the immediate symptoms, and preventing complications. Long-term preventive treatment may begin after initial treatment of the acute condition. Hospitalization is required. Vital signs (temperature, pulse, rate of breathing, blood pressure), and fluid and electrolyte status are monitored, and abnormalities are treated as appropriate.
Treatment may require maintenance of a sedated state for a week or more until withdrawal is complete. Benzodiazepine medications such as diazepam are often useful to provide sedation. Diazepam is also useful to treat seizures as well as anxiety and tremors.
Support GroupsFor additional resources, see alcoholism support group .
Delirium tremens is serious and may be life-threatening. Symptoms such as sleeplessness, feeling tired, and emotional instability may persist for a year or more.
Calling your health care providerGo to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if symptoms develop. Delirium tremens is an emergency condition!
PreventionAvoid or minimize the use of alcohol. Treat known alcoholism appropriately. Obtain prompt medical treatment for symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Also, look into alcohol detoxification or "detox" centers in your area, as well as alcohol rehabilitation centers or "rehab" facilities.
Update Date: 6/8/2003David Webner, M.D., Department of Family Medicine, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
Last updated: Tue, 06 Jan 2009 00:20:03 GMT