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Delirium Tremens

Delirium Tremens

Delirium Tremens or DT is a serious condition of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. DT leads to sudden and severe mental and nervous system changes.


Causes of Delirium Tremens

When a person suddenly stops drinking alcohol after a period of heavy consumption, and does not eat enough food, delirium tremens occurs. This means, a person consuming 4-5 pints of wine or 7-8 pints of beer of a pint of hard alcohol every day for several months. This could happen to people with more than a decade of drinking alcohol.

One important reason is that in long term drinkers, alcohol interferes with body's ability to regulate a neurotransmitter called GABA. In chronic alcohol abuse, the body mistakes alcohol for GABA and reacts to this by reducing its production of the neurotransmitter. As alcohol levels falls too low, it means there is not enough GABA for proper functioning. This can also occur due to infection, injury and illness in people with a history of heavy alcohol use and abuse.


Signs and symptoms of Delirium Tremens

Symptoms normally occur within 72 hours of the last drink, but they can also occur up to 10 days after the last drink. Common symptoms include:


  • Body tremors
  • Functional changes
  • Agitation
  • Anger and irritability
  • Confusion and loss of focus
  • Reduced attention span
  • Deep sleep that lasts for a day or longer
  • Excitement and fear
  • Hallucination
  • Hyperactivity
  • Quick mood reversals
  • Restlessness
  • Sensitivity to light, sound and touch
  • Sleeplessness and fatigue.

There could be seizures, most commonly in the first 12-48 hours after the last drink. As DT can temporarily reduce the amount of blood flow to the brain, symptoms as confusion, disorientation, stupor and loss of consciousness and hallucinations occur. There are other medical complications that can arise due to alcohol abuse. These include:


  • Alcoholic liver disease
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Neuropathy
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Wernicke Korsakoff's syndrome, a brain disorder due to thiamine deficiency
  • Injury from fall during seizures
  • Irregular heartbeat which can be life threatening
  • Delirium and injury to self/others in a state of confusion

The body goes through change due to withdrawal of alcohol when a person suddenly stops drinking after prolonged use. Alcohol has a slowing and sedating effect on the brain and the brain of a long term drinker is conditionally exposed to the depressant effect of alcohol. The brain starts producing naturally stimulating chemicals to compensate for the effect of alcohol. Hence, if the alcohol is withdrawn suddenly, the brain is lost. This dangerous condition of delirium tremens occurs in almost 1 out of every 20 persons. In this condition the brain is unable to read the chemistry after alcohol is stopped and therefore creates a temporary confusion leading to dangerous changes in the way the brain regulates body circulation and breathing. This creates risk of heart attack, stroke and death.


Diagnosis of DT

Blood tests can be done to assess blood magnesium and blood phosphate levels. Comprehensive metabolic panel and toxicology tests are also conducted. A stay in hospital in required for treatment. Regular checks of blood chemistry levels, such as electrolytes, body fluids level and vital signs such as temperature, pulse, breathing rate and blood pressure are monitored. Medications such as anticonvulsants, central nervous system depressants and sedatives are administered for symptoms such as seizures and irregular heartbeat. Sometimes the patient is put in a state of sedation for a week until withdrawal is complete. Benzodiazepine medications are given to treat seizures, anxiety and tremors. Only after the patient recovers from immediate symptoms is long term preventive treatment given. The doctor allows a ‘drying out' period in which no alcohol is consumed.

CK blood test

A Creatinine Kinase test is a blood test that measures the levels of Creatinine phosphokinase (CPK). It is an enzyme found predominantly in the heart tissue, brain and skeletal muscle. The CK blood test is commonly used to diagnose the existence of heart muscle damage. The CK blood test result shows an increase above normal in a person's blood test about six hours after the start of a heart attack.


It reaches its peak in about 18 hours and returns to normal in 24 to 36 hours. When the total CPK level is substantially elevated, then it is indicative of injury or stress to heart, brain or skeletal areas. The small amount of CPK that is normally in the blood comes from the muscles. The CPK blood test also helps in cost-effective management of people with suspected coronary atherosclerosis. It also evaluates the extent of muscle damage caused by drugs, trauma or immobility.


Abnormal CK-MB (one of three CK isoenzymes) or troponin levels are associated with Myocyte Necrosis and the diagnosis of Myocardial infarction. The Cardiac Markers of Cardiac Myocyte Necrosis (damage to the Cardiac muscle cells), myoglobin, CK, CK-MB and troponin I and T are primarily used to identify acute Myocardial Infarction.


It is used in early detection of dermatomyositis and polymyositis. It is also used to distinguish malignant hyperthermia from a post operative infection. It helps to discover carriers of muscular dystrophy.

The normal range for Creatinine Kinase (CK or CPK) blood test:
Male: 38 - 174 units/L
Female: 96 - 140 units/L

Increased levels of CK also can be found in viral myositis and hypothyroidism. Higher than normal CPK levels is indicative of the following conditions:



CK MB

Serum CKMB levels are tested to check for myocardial injury. It is another important cardiac marker. The primary source of CKMB is myocardium although it is also found in skeletal muscle. Typically CKMB tests have now been replaced by Troponin test. But in cases of abnormal Troponin assay results or suspected re-infarction in the hospital, the CKMB serum test is still used.


High levels of CK MB are noticed in cases of polymyositis and rhabdomyolysis. Patients suffering pulmonary embolism, hypothyroidism, and muscular dystrophy or carbon monoxide poisoning can also show higher levels of serum CKMB. The reference range is about 56.2 pg/mL.


Delirium Tremens

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