What It's Like to Go Through the DTs

a paramedic rushing a patient to the ambulance
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images

People who drink alcohol heavily experience a variety of physical and mental withdrawal symptoms when they cut back or stop drinking. People who stop drinking cold turkey can experience a variety of symptoms ranging from mild to severe. The most severe alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens, otherwise known as the DTs.

The experience of going through delirium tremens can vary from person to person depending on the duration and frequency of their previous alcohol consumption.

Causes of Delirium Tremens

Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it slows down the central nervous system. Chronic, heavy alcohol use can create changes in how the brain works, including how the brain's chemical messengers function. When alcohol consumption suddenly stops, the brain continues working in the state it has become used to, leading to symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

DTs typically begin after a person decides to give up alcohol after a binge, period of heavy drinking, or when they realize that they need to quit drinking. While people sometimes go through this process at home, it is also common for people to choose to go through alcohol withdrawal and detoxification at a medical facility.

DTs usually don't begin right away. A person who stops drinking will often experience a period of milder alcohol withdrawal symptoms that become increasingly severe.

Only about 5% of people going through withdrawal experience DTs. Heavy, long-term alcohol users are more likely to experience delirium tremens during withdrawal.

Early Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal

Early symptoms of alcohol withdrawal typically begin within the first 8 to 12 hours following a person's last drink. 

Early symptoms are often mild and can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Clammy skin
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Lack of energy
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Vomiting

These early-stage symptoms of withdrawal typically last for between 1 to 3 days, although they may last longer for some individuals.

Later Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal

As alcohol withdrawal progresses, people often begin to experience more severe symptoms which may include:

  • Breathing changes or difficulties
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

These symptoms may begin around 12 to 24 hours after a person has stopped drinking. Such symptoms may also be experienced in addition to the symptoms that characterize early withdrawal.

Delirium Tremens (DTs)

It is during the later stages of alcohol withdrawal, around 48 to 96 hours after the last alcohol use, that people may experience delirium tremens (DTs). However, they may also begin as long as 7 to 10 days after a person quits drinking.

Symptoms of the DTs include:

  • Changes in heart rate
  • Deep sleep
  • Delirium
  • Disorientation
  • Fatigue or stupor
  • Fear or excitement
  • Rapid mood changes
  • Seizures
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and touch
  • Tremors

While going through DTs, people may experience feelings of severe agitation. Feelings of panic or even a sense of impending doom are not uncommon. Some people may also experience changes in heart rate or breathing that are potentially fatal. 

Symptoms of DTs typically resolve in a few days, but they are serious and should receive medical attention. If you or someone you know has signs of delirium tremens, contact medical services immediately.

Treatment for Delerium Tremens

DTs are a medical emergency that requires hospitalization. Doctors may conduct a variety of tests including electrocardiograms (ECGs), toxicology screens, blood magnesium levels, metabolic panels, and blood phosphate levels. Treatment is focused first and foremost on saving the individual's life, preventing complications, and minimizing symptoms.

Treatment may include the use of benzodiazepines to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Some of the medications that are used to treat DTs include lorazepam (Ativan) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium). Such medications may help relieve the anxiety that is associated with severe, acute alcohol withdrawal.

Because heavy alcohol use can also result in nutritional deficiencies, doctors may also recommend vitamins and minerals including thiamine, zinc, phosphate, magnesium, and folate. 

With medical treatment, mortality rates for DTs are around five percent. Without appropriate treatment, between 15% to 35% of cases may be fatal. The most common causes of death for patients with DTs are attributed to cardiac arrhythmias and respiratory failure.

Before You Stop Drinking

While not everyone who goes through alcohol withdrawal experiences DTs, you should still inform your doctor about your plan to stop drinking. Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous and potentially fatal, so you should always go through this process under the supervision of a medical professional.

The problem is that no one knows until they quit how severe their withdrawal symptoms will be. If you're a longtime drinker or a heavy drinker and you plan to quit, consult with your healthcare provider or seek treatment from a professional detoxification facility.

Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction

If you need help to stop drinking, there are resources available. Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon can provide information and social support as you go through this process. You can even attend meetings online.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Rahman A, Paul M. Delirium Tremens (DT). In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019.

  2. Mirijello, A, et al.Identification and management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Drugs. 2015; 75(4); 353-365. doi: 10.1007/s40265-015-0358-1

  3. Mainerova B, Prasko J, Latalova K, et al. Alcohol withdrawal delirium - diagnosis, course and treatment. Biomed Pap Med Fac Univ Palacky Olomouc Czech Repub. 2015;159(1):44-52. doi:10.5507/bp.2013.089

  4. Attilia F, Perciballi R, Rotondo C, et al. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: diagnostic and therapeutic methods. Riv Psichiatr. 2018;53(3):118-122. doi:10.1708/2925.29413

  5. Gray R, Kouadio A, Daeppen JB. [Nutrition disorders and alcohol use disorder]. Rev Med Suisse. 2019;15(654):1177-1180. PMID: 31166668

Additional Reading