Delirium tremens overview
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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D.  Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Vishnu Vardhan Serla M.B.B.S.  Zehra Malik, M.B.B.S
Delirium tremens (colloquially, the DTs, "the horrors", "the shakes" or "rum fits"; afflicted individuals referred to as "jitterbugs" in 1930s Harlem slang; literally, "shaking delirium" or "trembling madness" in Latin) is an acute episode of delirium that is usually caused by withdrawal or abstinence from alcohol following habitual excessive drinking, or benzodiazepines or barbiturates (and other minor tranquilizers).When caused by alcohol, it occurs only in individuals with a history of constant, long-term alcohol consumption. Occurrence due to benzodiazepine or barbiturate withdrawal does not require as long a period of consistent intake of such drugs. Prior use of both tranquilizers and alcohol can compound the symptoms, and while extremely rare, is the most dangerous especially if untreated. Barbiturates are generally accepted as being extremely dangerous, both due to overdose potential and addiction potential including the extreme withdrawal syndrome that usually is marked by delirium tremens upon discontinuation. Due to this, barbiturates are rarely used anymore, being replaced by the generally accepted less dangerous benzodiazepines, which however still cause a similar withdrawal syndrome. Five percent of acute ethanol withdrawal cases progress to delirium tremens.Unlike the withdrawal syndrome associated with opiate addiction (generally), delirium tremens (and alcohol withdrawal in general) can be fatal. Mortality can be up to 35% if untreated; if treated early, death rates range from 5-15%.
There is no established system for the classification of Delirium tremens.
Differentiating Delirium tremens from Other Diseases
Epidemiology and Demographics
Five percent of acute ethanol withdrawal cases progress to delirium tremens. Unlike the withdrawal syndrome associated with opiate addiction (generally), delirium tremens (and alcohol withdrawal in general) can be fatal. Mortality can be up to 35% if untreated; if treated early, death rates range from 5-15%.
Common risk factors in the development of Delirium tremens include chronic alcoholism, more days since last alcohol consumption, prior history of Delirium tremens, and extreme withdrawal symptoms.
Screening tools include the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) and the CAGE screening test.
Natural History, Complications, and Prognosis
The symptoms of Delirium tremens usually start within 48 to 98 hours after the last drink in long term alcoholics. In some cases, it may occur up to 7 to 10 days after their last drink. Delirium tremens have a very high mortality rate if left untreated. Complications include, hypertension, hyperthermia, Heart attack, cardiac arrhythmia, stroke, seizure, respiratory failure, altered mental status, rhabdomyolysis and death. Prognosis largely depends upon early recognition and intervention. Mortality from Delirium tremens has been reduced from 35% to 5-15% due to early diagnosis and advanced ICU arrangements. Due to advanced treatment overall mortality is low, but it can vary in patient with other comorbidities including pulmonary insufficiencies, arrhythmia, pancreatitis, or if patient is older.
Diagnostic Study of Choice
History and Symptoms
Tachyarrhythmias are common ECG findings in patients with delirium tremens. Torsade de pointes can occur as prolonged QTc interval is strongly associated with heavy alcohol consumption.
An x-ray is important in patients with suspected delirium tremens, especially if they present with a fever or trauma. A chest x-ray should be obtained in patients with fever, as fifty-percent of these patients may have an infection. Pneumonia is the most common infection.
Echocardiography and Ultrasound
There are no echocardiography/ultrasound findings associated with delirium tremens. Due to the stress induced by delirium tremens, few cases of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy have been reported.
A CT scan of the head should be performed to evaluate any intracranial pathology.
Other Imaging Findings
Other Diagnostic Studies
Avoid or reduce the use of alcohol. Get prompt medical treatment for symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.