What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium? Alcohol withdrawal delirium (AWD) is the most serious form of alcohol withdrawal. It causes sudden and severe problems in your brain and nervous system. An estimated 50 percent of people who have an alcohol addiction will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking. Of those people, 3 to 5 percent will experience AWD symptoms like grand mal seizures and severe confusion. What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium? AWD only affects people with a history of heavy alcohol use. Heavy drinkers may develop this condition if they: suddenly stop drinkingreduce their alcohol use too quicklydon’t eat enough when reducing alcohol usehave a head injuryare sick or have an infection Who Is at Risk of Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium? You’re at risk of AWD if you have: been drinking heavily for a long timea history of alcohol withdrawala history of AWDother health problems in addition to alcoholisma history of seizure disorder or other brain damage All heavy, long-term drinkers are at risk of AWD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines heavy drinking as 15 drinks a week for men and 8 drinks a week for women. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about your drinking habits. They can recommend programs that will help you stop drinking. They can also help you manage any symptoms of alcohol withdrawal you experience when you stop drinking. What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium? Symptoms of AWD usually occur within three days of changing alcohol use. However, sometimes they may take a week or more to appear. Symptoms of AWD may include: anxietyagitation or irritabilityconfusionexcitementfearsudden mood changesdelirium (an extremely disturbed state of mind)sensitivity to light, sound, or touchdelusions (irrationally believing things that are untrue)hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there)nightmaresfeverfatiguenausearestlessnesschest painstomach painincreased heart rate or breathing rateexcessive sweatingincreased startle reflex (an exaggerated reaction to unexpected stimuli)involuntary muscle contractionsseizureseye and muscle movement problems How Is Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium Diagnosed? Contact your doctor right away if you’re concerned about the symptoms you’re experiencing during alcohol withdrawal. During your appointment, your health care provider will perform a physical exam to see if you have AWD symptoms. Some tests that may be needed for a diagnosis include: a toxicology screen to look for alcohol in your bloodblood tests to measure magnesium and phosphatea comprehensive metabolic panelan electrocardiogram (ECG) to check your heart functionan electroencephalogram (EEG) to record the electrical activity in your brain You may also be tested for other medical conditions related to alcohol use, such as: alcoholic liver diseasealcoholic neuropathy (nerve damage caused by alcohol use)alcoholic cardiomyopathy (weak heart muscle due to alcohol use)Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (brain damage from a lack of thiamine, or vitamin B1) How Is Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium Treated? Treatments for AWD may include: intravenous fluidsanticonvulsants to prevent or stop seizuressedatives to calm agitation and treat anxietyantipsychotic medications to prevent hallucinationsmedication to reduce fever and body aches (if they occur) treatment for other alcohol-related conditionsrehabilitation to help you stop drinking AWD can be fatal. Therefore, your doctor may suggest that you receive treatment in a hospital. It may take up to a week for you to feel better. Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium People with AWD are at increased risk of: injuries from falling during a seizureinjuring themselves or someone else while confuseddeveloping an irregular heartbeat Prognosis of Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium Early treatment for AWD is important. Treatment significantly lowers your risks of complications and death. With timely medical treatment, AWD has very low death rate. However, some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may last for more than a year. These include: mood swingsfatiguesleeplessness Preventing Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium The best way to prevent AWD is to drink moderately or not at all. Talk to your doctor if you think you drink heavily. They can help you quit drinking in a safe environment and prevent serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Get emergency medical help if you think you’re experiencing symptoms of AWD. You have a better chance of making a full recovery if you receive prompt medical attention.
Rose Kivi and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Medically Reviewed by:
Jul 16, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.