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Delirium tremens

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Delirium tremens
An alcoholic man with delirium tremens on his deathbed, surrounded by his concerned family. The text L'alcool tue means "Alcohol kills" in French.
SpecialtyPsychiatry, critical care medicine
SymptomsAlcoholic hallucinosis, confusion, shaking, shivering, irregular heart rate, sweating[1][2]
ComplicationsVery high body temperature, seizures[2]
Usual onsetRapid[2]
Duration2–3 days[2]
CausesAbrupt cessation of alcohol intake in a state of alcohol dependence
Differential diagnosisBenzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome, barbiturate withdrawal[3]
TreatmentIntensive care unit, benzodiazepines, thiamine[2]
PrognosisRisk of death ~2% (treatment), 25% (no treatment)[4]
Frequency~4% of those withdrawing from alcohol[2]

Delirium tremens (DTs; lit.'mental disturbance with shaking') is a rapid onset of confusion usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol.[2] When it occurs, it is often three days into the withdrawal symptoms and lasts for two to three days.[2] Physical effects may include shaking, shivering, irregular heart rate, and sweating.[1] People may also hallucinate.[2] Occasionally, a very high body temperature or seizures (colloquially known as "rum fits")[5][6] may result in death.[2]

Delirium tremens typically occurs only in people with a high intake of alcohol for more than a month, followed by sharply reduced intake.[7] A similar syndrome may occur with benzodiazepine and barbiturate withdrawal.[3] (Withdrawal from stimulants, such as cocaine and amphetamines, does not have major medical complications.[8]) In a person with delirium tremens it is important to rule out other associated problems such as electrolyte abnormalities, pancreatitis, and alcoholic hepatitis.[2]

Prevention is by treating withdrawal symptoms using similarly acting compounds to taper off the use of the precipitating substance in a controlled fashion.[2] If delirium tremens occurs, aggressive treatment improves outcomes.[2] Treatment in a quiet intensive care unit with sufficient light is often recommended.[2] Benzodiazepines are the medication of choice with diazepam, lorazepam, chlordiazepoxide, and oxazepam all commonly used.[7] They should be given until a person is lightly sleeping.[2] Non-benzodiazepines are often used as adjuncts to manage the sleep disturbance associated with condition. The antipsychotic haloperidol may also be used,[2] as a major tranquilizer, in order to combat the overactivity and possible excitotoxicity caused by the withdrawal from a GABA-ergic sedative. The vitamin thiamine is recommended to be given intramuscularly,[2] because long term high alcohol intake and the often attendant nutritional deficit damages the small intestine, and so leads to a thiamine deficiency which sometimes cannot be rectified by supplement pills alone.

Mortality without treatment is between 15% and 40%.[4] Currently death occurs in about 1% to 4% of cases.[2]

About half of people with alcoholism will develop withdrawal symptoms upon reducing their use.[2] Of these, 3% to 5% develop DTs or have seizures.[2]

The name delirium tremens was first used in 1813; however, the symptoms were well described since the 1700s.[7] The word "delirium" is Latin for "going off the furrow," a plowing metaphor for disordered thinking.[4] It is also called the shaking frenzy and Saunders-Sutton syndrome.[4] There are numerous nicknames for the condition, including "the DTs" and "seeing pink elephants".

Signs and symptoms[edit]

The main symptoms of delirium tremens are nightmares, agitation, global confusion, disorientation, visual and auditory hallucinations,[9] tactile hallucinations, fever, high blood pressure, heavy sweating, and other signs of autonomic hyperactivity (fast heart rate and high blood pressure). These symptoms may appear suddenly but typically develop two to three days after the stopping of heavy drinking, being worst on the fourth or fifth day.[10]

These symptoms are characteristically worse at night.[11] For example, in Finnish, this nightlike condition is called liskojen yö, lit.'the night of the lizards', for its sweatiness, general unease, and hallucinations tending towards the unseemly and frightening.

In general, DT is considered the most severe manifestation of withdrawal from alcohol or other GABA-receptor active drugs, and can occur between the second and tenth days after the last drink.[9] It often overcomes the patient by surprise, because a brief period of uneventful sobriety of 1–2 days tends to precede it, it can fully manifest itself within a single hour, and unlike most other alcohol withdrawal symptoms, it is generally not relieved by more alcohol.

Other common symptoms include intense perceptual disturbance such as visions or feelings of insects, snakes, or rats. These may be hallucinations or illusions related to the environment, e.g., patterns on the wallpaper or in the peripheral vision that the patient falsely perceives as a resemblance to the morphology of an insect, and are also associated with tactile hallucinations such as sensations of something crawling on the subject—a phenomenon known as formication. Delirium tremens usually includes feelings of "impending doom". Anxiety and expecting imminent death are common DT symptoms.[12]

DT can sometimes be associated with severe, uncontrollable tremors of the extremities, and secondary symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, and paranoia. Confusion is often noticeable to onlookers as those with DT will have trouble forming simple sentences or making basic logical calculations.[citation needed]

DT should be distinguished from alcoholic hallucinosis, the latter of which occurs in approximately 20% of hospitalized alcoholics and does not carry a significant risk of mortality. In contrast, DT occurs in 5–10% of alcoholics and carries up to 15% mortality with treatment and up to 35% mortality without treatment. The most common conditions leading to death in patients with DTs are respiratory failure and cardiac arrhythmias. [13]


Delirium tremens is mainly caused by a long period of drinking being stopped abruptly. Withdrawal leads to a biochemical regulation cascade.[citation needed]

Delirium tremens is most common in people who are in alcohol withdrawal, especially in those who drink 10–11 standard drinks (equivalent of 7 to 8 US pints (3 to 4 L) of beer, 4 to 5 US pints (1.9 to 2.4 L) of wine or 1 US pint (0.5 L) of distilled beverage) daily. Delirium tremens commonly affects those with a history of habitual alcohol use or alcoholism that has existed for more than 10 years.[14]


Delirium tremens is a component of alcohol withdrawal hypothesized to be the result of compensatory changes in response to chronic heavy alcohol use. Alcohol positively allosterically modulates the binding of GABA, enhancing its effect and resulting in inhibition of neurons projecting into the nucleus accumbens, as well as inhibiting NMDA receptors. This combined with desensitization of alpha-2 adrenergic receptors, results in a homeostatic upregulation of these systems in chronic alcohol use.[15]

When alcohol use ceases, the unregulated mechanisms result in hyperexcitability of neurons as natural GABAergic systems are down-regulated and excitatory glutamatergic systems are upregulated. This combined with increased noradrenergic activity results in the symptoms of delirium tremens.[15]


Diagnosis is mainly based on symptoms. In a person with delirium tremens, it is important to rule out other associated problems, such as electrolyte abnormalities, pancreatitis, and alcoholic hepatitis.[2]


Delirium tremens due to alcohol withdrawal can be treated with benzodiazepines. High doses may be necessary to prevent death.[16] Amounts given are based on the symptoms. Typically the person is kept sedated with benzodiazepines, such as diazepam, lorazepam, chlordiazepoxide, or oxazepam.

In some cases antipsychotics, such as haloperidol may also be used. Older drugs such as paraldehyde and clomethiazole were formerly the traditional treatment but have now largely been superseded by the benzodiazepines.[17]

Acamprosate is occasionally used in addition to other treatments, and is then carried on into long-term use to reduce the risk of relapse. If status epilepticus occurs it is treated in the usual way.[citation needed]

It can also be helpful to provide a well lit room as people often have hallucinations.[18]

Alcoholic beverages can also be prescribed as a treatment for delirium tremens,[19] but this practice is not universally supported.[20]

High doses of thiamine often by the intravenous route is also recommended.[2]

Delirium tremens in literature[edit]

Drawing by Donald Ogden Stewart published in 1921 showing Little Elmer's father with DTs and seeing pink elephants

French writer Émile Zola's novel The Drinking Den (L'Assommoir) includes a character – Coupeau, the main character Gervaise's husband – who has delirium tremens by the end of the book.

In English Writer Mona Caird's feminist novel The Daughters of Danaus (1894), "[a]s for taking enfeeblement as a natural dispensation," the character Hadria "would as soon regard delirium tremens in that light."

American writer Mark Twain describes an episode of delirium tremens in his book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In chapter 6, Huck states about his father, "After supper pap took the jug, and said he had enough whisky there for two drunks and one delirium tremens. That was always his word." Subsequently, Pap Finn runs around with hallucinations of snakes and chases Huck around their cabin with a knife in an attempt to kill him, thinking Huck is the "Angel of Death".

One of the characters in Joseph Conrad's novel Lord Jim experiences "DTs of the worst kind" with symptoms that include seeing millions of pink frogs.

English author M. R. James mentions delirium tremens in his 1904 ghost story "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'". Professor Parkins while staying at the Globe Inn when in coastal Burnstow to "improve his game" of golf, despite being "a convinced disbeliever in what is called the 'supernatural'", when face to face with an entity in his "double-bed room" during the story's climax, is heard "uttering cry upon cry at the utmost pitch of his voice" though later "was somehow cleared of the ready suspicion of delirium tremens".

American writer Jack Kerouac details his experiences with delirium tremens in his book Big Sur.[21]

English author George Eliot provides a case involving delirium tremens in her novel Middlemarch (1871–72). Alcoholic scoundrel John Raffles, both an abusive stepfather of Joshua Riggs and blackmailing nemesis of financier Nicholas Bulstrode, dies, whose "death was due to delirium tremens" while at Peter Featherstone's Stone Court property. Housekeeper Mrs. Abel provides Raffles' final night of care per Bulstrode's instruction whose directions given to Abel stand adverse to Tertius Lydgate's orders.

Delirium tremens in film and TV[edit]

In the 1945 film The Lost Weekend, Ray Milland won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his depiction of a character who experiences delirium tremens after being hospitalized, hallucinating that he saw a bat fly in and eat a mouse poking through a wall.[22][23][24]

The M*A*S*H TV series episode "Bottoms Up" (season 9, episode 15, aired on March 2, 1981) featured a side story about a nurse (Capt. Helen Whitfield) who was found to be drinking heavily off-duty. By the culmination of the episode, after a confrontation by Maj. Margaret Houlihan, the character swears off alcohol and presumably quits immediately. At mealtime, roughly 48 hours later, Whitfield becomes hysterical upon being served food in the Mess tent, claiming that things are crawling onto her from it. Margaret and Col. Sherman Potter subdue her. Potter, having recognized the symptoms of delirium tremens orders 5 ml of paraldehyde from a witnessing nurse.

During the filming of the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Graham Chapman developed delirium tremens due to the lack of alcohol on the set. It was particularly bad during the filming of the bridge of death scene where Chapman was visibly shaking, sweating and could not cross the bridge. His fellow Pythons were astonished as Chapman was an accomplished mountaineer.[25]

In the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas, Nicolas Cage plays a suicidal alcoholic who rids himself of all his possessions and travels to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. During his travels, he experiences delirium tremens on a couch after waking up from a binge and crawls in pain to the refrigerator for more vodka. Cage's performance as Ben Sanderson in the film won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1996.

Delirium tremens in music[edit]

Irish singer-songwriter Christy Moore has a song on his 1985 album, Ordinary Man, called "Delirium Tremens" which is a satirical song, directed towards the leaders in Irish politics and culture. Some of the people mentioned in the song include Charles Haughey (former Fianna Fáil leader), Ruairi Quinn (at the time a Labour TD, later the party leader), Dick Spring (former Labour Party leader) and Roger Casement (who was captured bringing German guns to Ireland for the 1916 Easter Rising). English band Brotherly has a song called "DTs" on their album One Sweet Life.

Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) died of delirium tremens.[26]

Delirium tremens in popular culture[edit]

Huyghe Brewery's flagship beer is Delirium Tremens, a golden ale.

Nicknames for delirium tremens include "the DTs", "the shakes", "the oopizootics", "barrel-fever", "the blue horrors", "the rat's", "bottleache", "bats", "the drunken horrors", "seeing pink elephants", "gallon distemper", "quart mania", "heebie jeebies", "pink spiders", and "riding the ghost train",[27] as well as "ork orks", "the zoots", "the 750 itch", and "pint paralysis". Another nickname is "the Brooklyn Boys", found in Eugene O'Neill's one-act play Hughie set in Times Square in the 1920s.[28] Delirium tremens was also given an alternate medical definition since at least the 1840s, being known as mania a potu, which translates to 'mania from drink'.[29]

The Belgian beer "Delirium Tremens," introduced in 1988, is a direct reference and also uses a pink elephant as its logo to highlight one of the symptoms of delirium tremens.[30][31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Healy, David (3 December 2008). Psychiatric Drugs Explained. Elsevier Health Sciences. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-7020-2997-4. Archived from the original on 8 September 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Schuckit, MA (27 November 2014). "Recognition and management of withdrawal delirium (delirium tremens)". The New England Journal of Medicine. 371 (22): 2109–13. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1407298. PMID 25427113. S2CID 205116954.
  3. ^ a b Posner, Jerome B. (2007). Plum and Posner's Diagnosis of Stupor and Coma (4 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA. p. 283. ISBN 9780198043362. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04.
  4. ^ a b c d Blom, Jan Dirk (2010). A dictionary of hallucinations (. ed.). New York: Springer. p. 136. ISBN 9781441912237. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04.
  5. ^ "rum fits". Medical dictionary. Farlex, Inc. Retrieved 22 November 2022.
  6. ^ Rhinehart, John W. (1961). "Factors determining "rum fits"". American Journal of Psychiatry. 118 (3): 251–252. doi:10.1176/ajp.118.3.251. ISSN 0002-953X. PMID 13741146. Retrieved 1 February 2023.
  7. ^ a b c Stern, TA; Gross, AF; Stern, TW; Nejad, SH; Maldonado, JR (2010). "Current approaches to the recognition and treatment of alcohol withdrawal and delirium tremens: "old wine in new bottles" or "new wine in old bottles"". Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 12 (3). doi:10.4088/PCC.10r00991ecr. PMC 2947546. PMID 20944765.
  8. ^ Galanter, Marc; Kleber, Herbert D (1 July 2008). The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Substance Abuse Treatment (4th ed.). United States of America: American Psychiatric Publishing Inc. p. 58. ISBN 978-1-58562-276-4. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016.
  9. ^ a b Delirium Tremens (DTs)~clinical at eMedicine
  10. ^ Hales, R.; Yudofsky, S.; Talbott, J. (1999). Textbook of Psychiatry (3rd ed.). London: The American Psychiatric Press.[page needed]
  11. ^ Gelder et al, 2005 p188 Psychiatry 3rd Ed. Oxford: New York.[page needed]
  12. ^ "Delirium tremens: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia". medlineplus.gov. Retrieved 2023-11-08.
  13. ^ Delirium Tremens (DTs): Prognosis at eMedicine
  14. ^ MedlinePlus Encyclopedia: Delirium Tremens
  15. ^ a b Stern, Theodore A.; Gross, Anne F.; Stern, Thomas W.; Nejad, Shamim H.; Maldonado, Jose R. (1 January 2010). "Current Approaches to the Recognition and Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal and Delirium Tremens: "Old Wine in New Bottles" or "New Wine in Old Bottles"". Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 12 (3). doi:10.4088/PCC.10r00991ecr. ISSN 1523-5998. PMC 2947546. PMID 20944765.
  16. ^ Wolf KM, Shaughnessy AF, Middleton DB (1993). "Prolonged delirium tremens requiring massive doses of medication". J Am Board Fam Pract. 6 (5): 502–4. PMID 8213241.
  17. ^ Grover, Sandeep; Ghosh, Abhishek (December 2018). "Delirium Tremens: Assessment and Management". Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hepatology. 8 (4): 460–470. doi:10.1016/j.jceh.2018.04.012. PMC 6286444. PMID 30564004.
  18. ^ NCLEX-RN in a Flash. Jones & Bartlett Learning. 2009. ISBN 9780763761974.
  19. ^ Rosenbaum M, McCarty T (2002). "Alcohol prescription by surgeons in the prevention and treatment of delirium tremens: Historic and current practice". General Hospital Psychiatry. 24 (4): 257–259. doi:10.1016/S0163-8343(02)00188-3. PMID 12100836.
  20. ^ Sattar SP, Qadri SF, Warsi MK, Okoye C, Din AU, Padala PR, Bhatia SC (2006). "Use of alcoholic beverages in VA medical centers". Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy. 1: 30. doi:10.1186/1747-597X-1-30. PMC 1624810. PMID 17052353.
  21. ^ "Big Sur Introduction | Shmoop". Shmoop.com. Archived from the original on 28 June 2011. Retrieved 17 November 2022.
  22. ^ Bailey, Blake. "Weekend in the Sun; Hollywood went wild over Charles Jackson and his 1944 best-seller, The Lost Weekend. Jackson reciprocated, thrilled that the celebrated Billy Wilder wanted to direct his dark, autobiographical novel of addiction. But would the result—a cinematic classic—destroy his literary achievement?" Archived 2016-04-13 at the Wayback Machine, Vanity Fair (magazine), February 28, 2013. Accessed February 15, 2017. "That summer, Hollywood columns had buzzed with rumors about who would play Don Birnam, the genteel alcoholic who ends up howling with delirium tremens. The role had been turned down by everyone from Cary Grant to Gary Cooper before the Welshman Ray Milland took it, refusing to heed an all but universal warning that he was committing 'career suicide.'"
  23. ^ Cameron, Kate. ‘The Lost Weekend’ effectively portrays the damage caused by alcoholism on screen. Archived 2017-02-16 at the Wayback Machine, New York Daily News, January 2, 1945, reprinted February 17, 2015. Accessed February 15, 2017. "If you read the book, which was a best-seller last year, you know that Jackson did a remarkable job of recording the actions of Birnam, during a weekend binge of monumental proportions, and in setting down in graphic prose the effects produced on him by liquor. In adapting the book to the screen, Brackett and Wilder have accomplished an equally remarkable feat of projecting a case of delirium tremens on screen."
  24. ^ Armstrong, Richard. Billy Wilder, American Film Realist Archived 2017-02-17 at the Wayback Machine, p. 41. McFarland & Company, 2004. ISBN 9780786421190. Accessed February 15, 2017. "Finally, Don's hallucination in which a wheeling bat devours a mouse places The Lost Weekend in a direct line of descent from the Gothicism of the '30s Universal horror cycle."
  25. ^ Chapman, Graham (April 20, 1982). "Late Show with David Letterman, episode #1.46" (video). youtube.com. NBC.
  26. ^ "Алкогольная трагедия легендарного композитора Мусоргского". Sobesednik.ru. Retrieved 17 November 2022.
  27. ^ Baldwin, Dan (2002). Just the FAQ's, Please, About Alcohol and Drug Abuse: Frequently Asked Questions from Families. America Star Books. pp. Chapter four. ISBN 9781611028706. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04.
  28. ^ Paulson, Michael, "Gambling on O'Neill: Forest Whitaker Makes His Broadway Debut in 'Hughie'" Archived 2016-02-29 at the Wayback Machine, New York Times, February 3, 2016. Retrieved 2016-02-03.
  29. ^ Lewis, Ellis (17 February 2012). Report of The Trial and Conviction of John Haggerty, for The Murder of Melchoir Fordney, Late of The City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Gale, Making of Modern Law. p. 63. ISBN 9781275311367.
  30. ^ Belgian, Beers (2020-05-29). "The Pink Elephant beer: Delirium Tremens". Belgian Beers. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  31. ^ "11 Things You Should Know About Delirium Tremens". Vinepair.com. 8 December 2017.

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