Wet Brain and Delirium Tremens

The Risks of Chronic Alcohol Use

In the world of alcohol addiction, there is a real threat of both short term and long term damage that comes along with drinking. Most people are familiar with the liver failure, the throat, stomach, and kidney cancers. However, most people are not aware of one of the most detrimental and potentially irreversible side effects of prolonged alcohol abuse; delirium tremens and wet brain.

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Wet Brain and Delirium Tremens

In the world of alcohol addiction, there is a real threat of both short term and long term damage that can occur due to excessive drinking habits. Most people are familiar with some of these side effects, such as liver failure, and an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer.

However, most people are not aware of two of the most detrimental and potentially irreversible side effects of prolonged alcohol abuse: delirium tremens and wet brain syndrome. 

What Is Delirium Tremens?

Older man with wet brain onset

In the early stages of alcohol withdrawal, which have the potential to be the most dangerous, there is a threat of developing a condition known as delirium tremens. This is most often characterized by uncontrollable tremors, a result of the body going into shock from ethanol withdrawal. 

Alcohol withdrawal delirium typically occurs in heavy drinkers who:

  • Abruptly stopped drinking after prolonged use
  • Are not well nourished enough when they do stop drinking
  • Are suffering from a head injury
  • Are sick with an infection during the time that they stop drinking

Over time, the brain and body become very used to the suppression quality that alcohol has on the neurotransmitters in the brain. 

Because of this dependency, when a chronic drinker suddenly stops their alcohol intake, their neurotransmitters can kick into overdrive as a result of the absence of this suppression. This autonomic hyperactivity can then send the brain and body into shock. In extreme cases, this can progress into cardiovascular collapse.

Symptoms of Delirium Tremens

There are several symptoms that are known to be caused by this condition, of which these can present themselves both physically and mentally. 

Some of these symptoms include:

  • Agitation, excitability, confusion, anxiety, and/or fear
  • Chest pain
  • Delirium and Delusions (a “disturbed” state of mind and believing things that are untrue)
  • Excessive sweating
  • Eye and muscle tremors
  • Fever
  • Visual and/or auditory hallucinations
  • Nausea, nightmares, sensitivity to light and sound
  • Seizures

The severity of these symptoms may vary depending on the individual’s level of addiction, as well as any underlying or co-occurring health conditions and/or disorders.

Risk Factors for Developing Delirium Tremens

There are several factors that might increase an individual’s risk of developing this particular alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Some of these include:

  • Particularly heavy levels of alcohol consumption in the weeks leading up to sudden stopped usage.
  • Previous alcohol withdrawal periods, and number of these occurrences. 
  • Previous history of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, including delirium tremens or seizures.
  • Previous medical history, such as underlying health issues, major or traumatic injuries (particularly to the head), liver or heart disease, etc.
  • Age; older individuals are more prone to developing this condition.
  • Usage of other medications or supplements.
  • Co-existing mental health disorder(s).
  • Poor overall health, lifestyle, and/or diet. 

Timeline of Developing Delirium Tremens

Delirium tremens most commonly take place between 48 to 72 hours after the last drink and are believed to peak at around 5 days. 

The beginning of this condition will typically include experiencing most if not all of the physical withdrawal symptoms of quitting alcohol. This is then typically followed by experiencing hallucinations, which may then progress into having seizures. 

If these initial stages are not properly addressed and treated, individuals will likely descend into a full-on state of delirium tremens if not treated properly.

Diagnosing Delirium Tremens

Because the symptoms of delirium tremens can resemble that of typical alcohol withdrawal, receiving a diagnosis for this condition can be tricky.

When determining if a patient has this specific alcohol withdrawal syndrome, their health care provider will likely conduct a physical examination to determine the type and intensity of symptoms they are experiencing,  as well as discuss the individual’s history of alcohol abuse. 

In order to be diagnosed with delirium tremens, the individual must first be experiencing a state of delirium, and secondly must be in an active state of severe withdrawal. 

Can Delirium Tremens Be Treated? 

Silhouette man with wet brain risk

While alcohol withdrawal delirium tremens can be a scary and difficult condition to deal with, treatment options for this syndrome are available. When it comes to treating any alcohol withdrawal syndrome, the first step of this will typically be to start weaning an individual’s body off of its dependence to this particular substance.

Early treatment can prevent serious long-term effects of delirium tremens, and with a rigorous treatment plan, individuals can recover from both the side effects of this alcohol withdrawal syndrome, as well as the overall alcohol use disorder that caused it.

Methods of Treating Delirium Tremens

The form of treatment an individual may receive will likely vary depending on the severity of a particular individual’s symptoms of delirium tremens. 

Because this condition constitutes a medical emergency, treatment will need to occur in a controlled environment where they can receive prompt medical attention if necessary. The two most common methods of treating this particular form of alcohol withdrawal are: 

  • Medical Detoxification. When undergoing a medically assisted detox process, rather than just suddenly stopping drinking, individuals will have their alcohol use gradually reduced. They may also be provided with a strict diet and/or nutritional supplements to combat malnutrition, medications designed to prevent and treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and mental health services.
  • Intensive Care Treatment. For critically ill patients, the most severe manifestation of this condition may require them to be admitted to an intensive care unit for treatment. Severe alcohol withdrawal can have life-threatening consequences; thus, hospitalized patients may require constant monitoring of their vital signs, and clinical supervision to help prevent and manage these symptoms. 

Whether recovering from delirium tremens in an intensive care unit or through a medically supervised detox program, these individuals may receive several forms of treatment. These may include: 

  • IV fluids to ensure they are staying hydrated and properly nourished.
  • Anticonvulsant medications may help prevent alcohol withdrawal seizures.
  • Sedatives to help calm or prevent muscle spasms.
  • Antipsychotic medications can help prevent visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations from occurring.
  • Controlled medications to help prevent or manage severe withdrawal symptoms. 

Once an individual has regained a general level of health, it is usually recommended that this initial medical treatment be followed by an extended inpatient stay at a substance and alcohol abuse treatment center

Medications Used to Treat Delirium Tremens

There are several medications an individual may be administered when being treated for severe alcohol withdrawal. These may include: 

  • Benzodiazepines. Medications such as lorazepam (Ativan) or diazepam (Valium) can effectively control a majority of these alcohol withdrawal symptoms, including delirium tremens; they may also help lower an individual’s risk of seizures.
  • Barbiturates. In some cases, other medications may be used alongside benzodiazepines if these are not effective enough in treating an individual’s delirium tremens. Phenobarbital, for example, may be used to further help manage symptoms such as seizures or insomnia. 
  • Antipsychotics. Used in low doses, medications such as Haloperidol (Haldol) can help ease agitation, as well as manage hallucination. Furthermore, they may help individuals have more control over their thoughts and behaviors. 

What Is Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), more commonly referred to as “wet brain” syndrome, is a form of brain damage resulting from a vitamin B1, or thiamine deficiency. 

For people who engage in chronic, excessive alcohol use, the possibility of developing this condition is much higher, as alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb thiamine into the system.

Role of Thiamine in the Brain

Thiamine is the chemical that is responsible for breaking down sugars into energy. When these levels fall too low, an individual’s brain cells will go into a state of shock, preventing their ability to produce enough energy to be able to function properly. 

What are the Symptoms of Wet Brain?

When it comes to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, the symptoms associated with it often resemble those of being actively intoxicated. 

The most commonly associated symptoms associated with this form of alcohol withdrawal are: 

  • Loss of coordination, poor muscle control, difficulty balancing
  • Rapid or otherwise abnormal eye movements
  • Visual disruptions, such as double or blurred vision
  • Loss of memory
  • Changes in behavior or temperament

Are there Stages of Wet Brain Syndrome?

Contrary to popular belief, this syndrome is not caused by a slow process of gradual brain damage that occurs over time. Rather, according to some studies, it is a combination of two stages of brain damage.

The first stage is called Wernicke’s encephalopathy, and is reversible if caught and treated. The second stage however, known as Korsakoff’s psychosis, represents this syndrome in its most severe form, and entails permanent damage.

What is Wernicke’s Encephalopathy?

Fortunately, this first stage of wet brain syndrome can be reversed if caught and treated quickly. Wernicke’s encephalopathy refers to the state of the brain after the initial occurrence of a severe deficiency in thiamine. 

If immediately managed with thiamine injections,  the effects of this condition can be treated, with the possibility of achieving a full recovery. 

The most common indications of this stage are:

  • Profound confusion and loss of mental activity
  • Loss of muscle coordination, which may cause leg tremors
  • Vision changes such as abnormal eye movement, double vision, or eyelid drooping
  • Stumbling, falling, passing out

Korsakoff’s Psychosis

If the initial stage of this condition is not treated immediately, it will progress into what is called Korsakoff’s psychosis. While this stage can be somewhat alleviated through treatment, it is considered to always cause some sort of permanent damage. Common symptoms are:

  • Inability to form new memories
  • Fabricating stories and memories
  • Hallucinations

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is considered to be far more life-threatening in the present moment, as it can wreak havoc on the body. However, a long-term diagnosis of Korsakoff’s psychosis presents very real, long-term challenges for the individuals who suffer from it.

Can Wet Brain be Cured?

Older man looking at brain model

Fortunately, there are many treatment options available to those who are suffering from this alcohol withdrawal syndrome. While a full recovery from this condition is considered to be rare, it is possible. Of course, as with many physical health conditions, the sooner treatment is administered, the more effective it will likely be.

There are also studies that show that even for people who progress into the stage of Korsakoff’s psychosis, there can still be a chance for improvement and rehabilitation. 

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Methods of Treatment for Wet Brain Syndrome

As with delirium tremens, wet brain syndrome will need to be treated in a medically-supervised environment, in order to prevent the occurrence of any further health issues or regressive behaviors on the patient’s behalf.

Furthermore, this treatment will likely also focus on gradually declining an individual’s alcohol scale, as a means of reversing their body’s dependency on heavy drinking. 

The main method of treating WKS focuses on providing individuals who are struggling with this condition with thiamine supplements. These may be administered via oral ingestion or intravenous injection. Increasing thiamine levels in these individuals has been proven to help improve their coordination,  muscle control, and memory, as well as reduce episodes of confusion and unusual eye movement.  

Under the close monitoring of a medical team, treatment using thiamine injections and pills, administering of other essential vitamins, and utilization of psychoanalytic therapy methods, there have been cases where individuals have almost fully recovered from this condition.

Can Wet Brain Only Occur From Alcohol Use?

Although it is extremely rare, wet brain syndrome in both of its stages can actually occur from several other conditions. The most commonly associated causing factor of this syndrome is malnutrition.

For example, cases have been discovered among individuals with anorexia, late stages of AIDS, fasting habits, chronic infections, as well as in people who have undergone weight loss surgery, kidney dialysis, or are in the late stages of cancer.

How Do I Recover From an Alcohol Use Disorder?

Recovery from alcoholism is possible

Many people think that they can stop drinking on their own. However, the dangers that can accompany chronic alcohol usage are extensive and, in extreme cases, fatal.

Particularly in cases where individuals suddenly stop drinking after previously engaging in consistent alcohol misuse, this “cold-turkey” method of correcting their behavior can have significant risk factors.  

It always recommended that individuals seek professional help in overcoming their alcohol abuse, either through undergoing a medical detox or any other form of inpatient treatment. 

Whether they experience minor withdrawal symptoms, or more severe effects from their acute alcohol withdrawal, having professional assistance and supervision can greatly increase the likelihood of their successful recovery. 

Furthermore, individuals battling alcohol use disorders (or any other form of substance abuse) can greatly benefit from joining support groups, as well as seeking out therapeutic or counseling services. 

Maintaining a Sober Lifestyle

Whether in the case of delirium tremens or wet brain syndrome, recovering from an alcohol withdrawal condition and achieving sobriety are only the first steps in an individual’s recovery journey. 

After receiving initial substance abuse treatment, maintaining sobriety can be a challenging and intimidating task for some people. However, there are several things these individuals can do to remain abstinent from their previously chronic alcohol use, including: 

  • Joining a Support Group. Connecting with other sober individuals in a safe and supportive environment can be significantly helpful in providing the necessary encouragement for recovering alcoholics to maintain their own sobriety.  
  • Healthy Social Interaction. Interacting with family and loved ones, and establishing a healthy support system to help manage difficult periods, can help keep individuals on track in maintaining their dedication to staying clean and sober. 
  • Practicing a Healthy Lifestyle. Establishing a daily routine, exercising, following a healthy diet, and developing mindfulness skills are all simple ways in which individuals can motivate and hold themselves accountable in their sobriety.
  • Seeking Professional Help. Receiving therapeutic guidance or counseling can help identify any underlying mental health or emotional issues that may be causing an individual’s substance abuse, and find healthier ways of managing these concerns. 

Finding the Right Treatment Options for You

If you or a loved one is suffering from alcoholism or addiction, it can be comforting to know that you are not alone in your struggles. Choosing to acknowledge and overcome substance abuse can be incredibly difficult, but it is the right choice; and you don’t have to make it alone.

Here at Find Addiction Rehabs, our team is dedicated to connecting you or your loved one with an addiction treatment center and program that best serves your care needs. If you are ready to change your life and finally be free of your addiction, let us help you take the first step on your path to recovery. 

Make the right choice, and call us today at our 24/7 hotline to get started on a journey to a healthier, happier you!

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