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Medically Reviewed

Delirium Tremens: Causes, Risk Factors, and Treatment

- 5 sections

Medically Verified: July 2, 2024

Medical Reviewer:

Sahil Talwar, PA-C, MBA


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic and progressive disease that can lead to a variety of health concerns. You can develop liver failure, cardiovascular conditions, brain damage, and even certain cancers from drinking too much.[1] Another risk of long-term and heavy alcohol misuse is a condition called delirium tremens (DTs).

When you are addicted to alcohol, suddenly stopping the use of it will lead to withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can include symptoms like vomiting, fatigue, sweating, rapid heart rate, and more.[2] Without medical detox, you could develop DTs, a severe and life-threatening type of withdrawal.

The symptoms of delirium tremens include excessive shaking, hallucinations, and even seizures. If you are a heavy or long-term drinker who has experienced seizures in the past, you have a higher risk of developing DTs. With professional alcohol detox treatment, DTs are treatable and the symptoms are manageable.

In this article, you will learn:

  • What is delirium tremens (DTs)
  • The symptoms of DTs
  • Causes and risk factors of DTs
  • How DTs are treated

What are Delirium Tremens (DTs)?

If you suffer from a severe alcohol use disorder, you could develop alcohol withdrawal delirium when you stop drinking. According to a study, DTs occur in “5% to 10% of alcohol-dependent individuals, with a mortality rate of 5% to 15% when left untreated.”[3]

Delirium tremens can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:[2]

  • Excessive shaking and tremors
  • Rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue or sedation
  • Dehydration
  • Fever
  • Irritability and anger
  • Jumpiness
  • Increased body temperature and sweating
  • Hallucinations and delusions
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and touch
  • Seizures

DTs cause your nervous system to be completely out of whack. The most dangerous effects of this condition include irregular heartbeat, trouble breathing, seizures, and severe imbalances of electrolytes. Because of the severity of these symptoms, you might require treatment in an emergency room or intensive care unit.

Causes and Risk Factors for Delirium Tremens

The cause of delirium tremens is having a severe alcohol use disorder and then stopping your alcohol consumption abruptly. Usually, the symptoms begin within 1 to 3 days of your last drink. If you were to attend medical detox to help you taper off of alcohol, DTs could be avoided altogether.

Certain risk factors make you more likely to develop delirium tremens than other people. For example, your alcohol intake plays a huge role. If you consumed large amounts of alcohol every day, you would be at a higher risk than someone who only had one or two alcoholic beverages.

The risk factors for DTs include:[4]

  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal in the past
  • Having a history of seizures
  • Engaging in heavy alcohol consumption for long periods
  • Having another substance use disorder at the same time, like sedative addiction
  • Being over the age of 30
  • Having other medical conditions like nutritional deficiencies or liver and cardiac disease

Are DTs Life-Threatening?

The mortality rate for untreated DTs is as high as 15%. As a result, you should always seek professional medical care as soon as you notice alcohol withdrawal symptoms are arising. While delirium tremens can be life-threatening, professional treatment will ensure you remain medically stable, saving your life and preventing serious complications.

Since you need to enter a medical detox program as soon as alcohol withdrawal begins to avoid DTs, it’s important to be aware of the early signs.

If you notice these symptoms, seek help from a detox center immediately:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches or light sensitivity
  • Sweating and chills
  • Fatigue
  • Vivid dreams
  • Cravings for alcohol
  • Shakiness and tremors

The presence of these symptoms indicates that you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal. There is no way to predict whether your withdrawal will turn into DTs, which means you should seek medical assistance no matter what.

How are Delirium Tremens Treated?

Delirium tremens are typically treated in a hospital setting because of the severity of the symptoms and the risks involved. Some medical detox centers are equipped to treat this condition, as they hire medical professionals and have wings suited for this level of care.

Usually, benzodiazepines are used to taper you off of alcohol while you have delirium tremens. These medications are also incredibly helpful in preventing or managing seizures, which is one of the main risks of DTs. In addition, you will be given IV fluids that contain electrolytes to combat symptoms like dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

Other medications might be used to address DTs, such as:[5]

  • Antipsychotics to manage symptoms of hallucinations and delusions
  • Anticonvulsants in case of seizures
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Pain relievers for general discomfort
  • Fever reducers

After you have overcome DTs, you will begin treatment for alcohol use disorder. This often involves inpatient rehab, which provides services like behavioral therapies, medication-assisted treatment (MAT), holistic care, relapse prevention planning, and even treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions.

Find Help for Alcohol Withdrawal and DTs

If you or a loved one suffers from alcoholism, you must seek medical detox treatment. Without medical support, you could go on to develop a severe form of withdrawal known as delirium tremens, which requires intensive care to prevent fatal consequences.

The South Carolina Addiction Treatment Center offers a continuum of care that includes medical detox and inpatient care. We will help you overcome alcohol withdrawal and then address the root causes of your addiction, increasing your chances of long-term sobriety.

South Carolina Addiction Treatment is a state-licensed and CARF (Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities) accredited substance abuse treatment facility. We are a dual-diagnosis facility with a primary focus on substance abuse. We offer individualized, extended-term treatment in an intimate setting located in Greenville / Simpsonville, SC. 

Contact us today to learn more about the treatment and prevention of delirium tremens.


  1. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): Alcohol’s Effects on the Body
  2. Medline Plus: Alcohol Withdrawal
  3. Delirium Tremens
  4. Delirium Tremens (DTs)
  5. The National Library of Medicine (NLM): Delirium Tremens: Assessment and Management