Alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur when patients stop drinking or significantly decrease their alcohol intake after long-term dependence. Withdrawal has a broad range of symptoms from mild tremors to a condition called delirium tremens, which results in seizures and could progress to death if not recognized and treated promptly. The reported mortality rate for patients who experience delirium tremens is anywhere from 1 to 5%.
Earn CME credit as you help guide your clinical decisions.
Ethanol is the primary alcohol ingested by chronic users. It is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that the body becomes reliant on with extended exposure to ethanol. It does this by inhibiting the excitatory portion (glutamate receptors) of the CNS and enhancing the inhibitory portions (GABA receptors) of the CNS. When the depressant is stopped, the central nervous system becomes overexcited as the inhibition is taken away. Thus, the body gets an excitatory overload, which results in the symptoms of withdrawal.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) per the DSM-IV is common, especially in the emergency department, where about 40% of patients have AUD. In patients coming into the ED with trauma and a Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol, revised (CIWA-Ar) score nearly 83% were of Male gender, and 43% were older than 55 years old. Of these patients with trauma, nearly 52% of those showing AWS symptoms had a CIWA-Ar score >20, 24% progressed to delirium tremens (DT). Delirium tremens is fatal in nearly 15% of cases without treatment and 1% in those who do receive treatment.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous center. GABA has particular binding sites available for ethanol, thus increasing the inhibition of the central nervous system when present. Chronic ethanol exposure to GABA creates constant inhibition or depressant effects on the brain. Ethanol also binds to glutamate, which is one of the excitatory amino acids in the central nervous system. When it binds to glutamate, it inhibits the excitation of the central nervous system, thus worsening the depression of the brain.
History and Physical
Alcohol withdrawal can range from very mild symptoms to a severe form, which is named delirium tremens. The hallmark is autonomic dysfunction resulting from the excitation of the central nervous system. Mild signs/symptoms can arise within six hours of alcohol cessation. If symptoms do not progress to more severe symptoms within 24 to 48 hours, the patient will likely recover. However, the time to presentation and range of symptoms can vary greatly depending on the patient, their duration of alcohol dependence, and the volume typically ingested. Most cases should be described by their severity of symptoms, not the time since their last drink. Noting the time of their last drink is essential in any patient with an alcohol dependence history who may be presenting with other complaints. You can help prevent withdrawal by staying on top of this! Some features that may heighten your suspicion that a patient could suffer severe withdrawal include a history of prior delirium tremens as well as a history of low platelets (thrombocytopenia) or low potassium levels (hypokalemia).
Mild symptoms can be elevated blood pressure, insomnia, tremulousness, hyperreflexia, anxiety, gastrointestinal upset, headache, palpitations.
Moderate symptoms include hallucinations and alcohol withdrawal seizures (rum fits) that can occur 12 to 24 hours after cessation of alcohol and are typically generalized in nature. There is a 3% incidence of status epilepticus in these patients. About 50% of patients who have had a withdrawal seizure will progress to delirium tremens.
Delirium tremens is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal, and its hallmark is that of an altered sensorium with significant autonomic dysfunction and vital sign abnormalities. It includes visual hallucinations, tachycardia, hypertension, hyperthermia, agitation, and diaphoresis. Symptoms of delirium tremens can last up to seven days after alcohol cessation and may last even longer.
These symptoms mimic those of withdrawal from long-term benzodiazepine or barbiturate use, so important historical features to note when a patient presents with autonomic dysfunction suspicious for a withdrawal syndrome should always include a medication list and social history. Also, consider these risk factors for any patient presenting with seizures of unknown etiology.
The diagnosis of alcohol withdrawal can be made by taking an excellent history and performing a thorough physical examination. It is a clinical diagnosis based on mild, moderate, or severe symptoms. Patients with suspicion for alcohol withdrawal should be evaluated for other underlying disease processes such as dehydration, infection, cardiac issues, electrolyte abnormalities, gastrointestinal bleeding, and traumatic injury. Laboratory studies (electrolytes, blood counts) may be drawn but will likely be nondiagnostic. Many chronic alcoholics will have baseline ketoacidosis due to their poor nutritional status, and labs may show acidemia with ketone production similar to a diabetic but with euglycemia or hypoglycemia due to lack of glycogen stores in their liver.
The Clinical Institute for Withdrawal Assessment for alcohol revised scale (CIWA-Ar) is a tool used to assess the severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The tool allows clinicians to monitor for the signs and symptoms of withdrawal and determine who needs medical therapy. The features that are used for the CIWA-Ar scale include the presence of:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Auditory disturbances
- Paroxysmal sweating
- Visual disturbances
- Clouding of sensorium
Some literature recommends checking an alcohol level at the time of onset of symptoms as symptomatic patients while still having a positive alcohol level with symptoms of autonomic dysfunction/withdrawal will have a higher morbidity/mortality, and their short-term prognosis can be poor.
Patients with prolonged altered sensorium or significant renal abnormalities should receive an evaluation for the potential ingestion of another toxic alcohol. Patients who become financially strapped due to alcoholism could ingest other alcohols to become intoxicated. These can include isopropyl alcohol, commonly known as rubbing alcohol, which can lead to acidemia without ketosis as well as hemorrhagic gastritis. Ethylene glycol (antifreeze) ingestion can lead to an altered sensorium, seizures, and severe renal dysfunction with acidemia that may require the initiation of hemodialysis. Methanol is rarely ingested as an ethanol substitute but can result in multisystem organ failure, blindness, and seizures.
Other common household substances can also contain a significant amount of alcohol if ingested in large quantities, including mouthwash and cough syrup. Some of these items may also contain a high content of salicylates or acetaminophen, so consider checking aspirin and acetaminophen levels in patients presenting with alcohol withdrawal.
Treatment / Management
Patients should be kept calm in a controlled environment to try to reduce the risks of progression from mild symptoms to hallucinations. With mild to moderate symptoms, patients should receive supportive therapy in the form of intravenous rehydration, correction of electrolyte abnormalities, and have comorbid conditions as listed above ruled out. Due to the risk of a comorbid condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, patients can also receive a “banana bag” or cocktail of folate, thiamine, dextrose containing fluids, and a multivitamin.
The hallmark of management for severe symptoms is the administration of long-acting benzodiazepines. The most commonly used benzodiazepines are intravenous diazepam or intravenous lorazepam for management. Patients with severe withdrawal symptoms may require escalating doses and intensive care level monitoring. Early consultation with a toxicologist is recommended to assist with aggressive management as these patients may require benzodiazepine doses at a level higher than the practitioner is comfortable with to manage their symptoms.
While patients with mild symptoms can be managed as outpatients, the following patients should be admitted:
- Absence of support systems
- Abnormal laboratory results
- High risk of Delirium tremens
- History of withdrawal seizures
- Concomitant psychiatric problems
- Abuse of other substances
- Suicidal ideations
Withdrawal seizures can typically be managed with benzodiazepines but may require adjunct therapy with phenytoin, barbiturates, and may even require intubation and sedation with propofol, ketamine, or in the most severe cases, dexmedetomidine.
Oral chlordiazepoxide and oxazepam are very commonly used for the prevention of withdrawal symptoms. Other drugs often used to manage symptoms include neuroleptics, anticonvulsants like carbamazepine, and valproic acid.
Propofol is used to manage refractory cases of delirium tremens, and baclofen can be used to treat muscle spasms.
Toxic alcohol co-ingestion should be managed with the assistance of a toxicologist.
- Stimulant drug abuse
- Status epilepticus
- CNS infection
- Withdrawal from sedative-hypnotics
- Essential tremors
The prognosis often depends on the severity of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Clinical outcomes such as length of hospital length of stay, length of time in the ICU, and alcohol withdrawal syndrome complications often show significant differences based on alcohol withdrawal syndrome severity and are worse with more severe manifestations of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Mortality is also greater in patients who progress to delirium tremens.
Complications that can accompany alcohol withdrawal syndrome include:
- Delirium tremens
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
- Sleep disturbances
- Cardiovascular complications
Postoperative and Rehabilitation Care
Alcoholics tend to have nutritional deficiencies and thus should be provided with folic and thiamine supplements. Some patients may benefit from magnesium supplements.
Deterrence and Patient Education
Patients need to understand that successful treatment of alcohol withdrawal syndrome is only the initial step that must lead to long-term abstinence to be successful. Abstinence is not likely unless the patient enrolls in a long-term treatment program. These programs can include individual counseling, group meetings, and long-term medications to reduce the risk of relapse.
Pearls and Other Issues
Patients with a history of alcohol dependence may have confounding social or underlying psychiatric issues that one should also be aware of once they are stabilized. They will likely require a multidisciplinary approach before discharge.
Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually appear when the individual discontinues or reduces alcohol intake after a period of prolonged consumption. However, healthcare workers should be aware that alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe and lead to death. In all cases, the management of alcohol withdrawal is monitored and managed by an interprofessional team to ensure good outcomes.
Alcohol withdrawal can be managed both as an inpatient or outpatient. In each case, close monitoring is essential as the symptoms can suddenly become severe.
In most cases, mild symptoms may start to develop within hours after the last drink, and if left untreated, can progress and become more severe. Because chronic alcohol use is widespread in society, all healthcare workers, including the nurse and pharmacist, should be familiar with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and its management. Nurses monitoring alcoholic patients should be familiar with signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and communicate to the interprofessional team if there are any deviations from normal. In most cases, the symptoms are autonomic. For those who develop delirium tremens, monitoring in a quiet room is recommended.
Today, pharmacotherapy is often used to manage the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. However, if the symptoms are severe and pharmacological treatment is required, the patient should be referred to an internist or an alcohol treatment specialist. Prompt referral and treatment can help lower the morbidity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms and may even be lifesaving.
After treatment, the patient should be referred to AA and urged to abstain from alcohol. For patients without support, a social worker should be involved to help facilitate addiction rehabilitation.
Today the outcomes for most patients with alcohol withdrawal are good, but for those who develop delirium tremens, the findings are less optimal. Despite optimal treatment, the condition is associated with mortality rates of 1 to 5%. [Level 5]
Patigny P, Zdanowicz N, Lepiece B. How should psychiatrists and general physician communicate to increase patients' perception of continuity of care after their hospitalization for alcohol withdrawal? Psychiatria Danubina. 2018 Nov:30(Suppl 7):409-411 [PubMed PMID: 30439814]
Egholm JW, Pedersen B, Møller AM, Adami J, Juhl CB, Tønnesen H. Perioperative alcohol cessation intervention for postoperative complications. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews. 2018 Nov 8:11(11):CD008343. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008343.pub3. Epub 2018 Nov 8 [PubMed PMID: 30408162]Level 1 (high-level) evidence
Finn DA, Helms ML, Nipper MA, Cohen A, Jensen JP, Devaud LL. Sex differences in the synergistic effect of prior binge drinking and traumatic stress on subsequent ethanol intake and neurochemical responses in adult C57BL/6J mice. Alcohol (Fayetteville, N.Y.). 2018 Sep:71():33-45. doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2018.02.004. Epub 2018 Mar 3 [PubMed PMID: 29966824]
Goodson CM, Clark BJ, Douglas IS. Predictors of severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research. 2014 Oct:38(10):2664-77. doi: 10.1111/acer.12529. Epub [PubMed PMID: 25346507]Level 1 (high-level) evidence
Salottolo K, McGuire E, Mains CW, van Doorn EC, Bar-Or D. Occurrence, Predictors, and Prognosis of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome and Delirium Tremens Following Traumatic Injury. Critical care medicine. 2017 May:45(5):867-874. doi: 10.1097/CCM.0000000000002371. Epub [PubMed PMID: 28266937]
Chhatlani A, Farheen SA, Manikkara G, Setty MJ, DeOreo E, Tampi RR. Anticonvulsants as monotherapy or adjuncts to treat alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review. Annals of clinical psychiatry : official journal of the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists. 2018 Nov:30(4):312-325 [PubMed PMID: 30372509]Level 1 (high-level) evidence
Hui D, Benzodiazepines for agitation in patients with delirium: selecting the right patient, right time, and right indication. Current opinion in supportive and palliative care. 2018 Dec [PubMed PMID: 30239384]Level 3 (low-level) evidence
Pikovsky M, Peacock A, Larney S, Larance B, Conroy E, Nelson E, Degenhardt L. Alcohol use disorder and associated physical health complications and treatment amongst individuals with and without opioid dependence: A case-control study. Drug and alcohol dependence. 2018 Jul 1:188():304-310. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2018.04.016. Epub 2018 May 21 [PubMed PMID: 29807218]Level 2 (mid-level) evidence
Ezard N, Cecilio ME, Clifford B, Baldry E, Burns L, Day CA, Shanahan M, Dolan K. A managed alcohol program in Sydney, Australia: Acceptability, cost-savings and non-beverage alcohol use. Drug and alcohol review. 2018 Apr:37 Suppl 1():S184-S194. doi: 10.1111/dar.12702. Epub 2018 Apr 17 [PubMed PMID: 29665174]
Günthner A, Weissinger V, Fleischmann H, Veltrup C, Jäpel B, Längle G, Amann K, Hoch E, Mann K. [Health Care Organization - The New German S3-Guideline on Alcohol-Related Disorders and its Relevance for Health Care]. Die Rehabilitation. 2018 Oct:57(5):314-320. doi: 10.1055/s-0043-118955. Epub 2018 Jan 22 [PubMed PMID: 29359282]
Campbell EJ, Lawrence AJ, Perry CJ. New steps for treating alcohol use disorder. Psychopharmacology. 2018 Jun:235(6):1759-1773. doi: 10.1007/s00213-018-4887-7. Epub 2018 Mar 25 [PubMed PMID: 29574507]
Mo Y, Thomas MC, Laskey CS, Shcherbakova N, Bankert ML, Halloran RH. Current Practice Patterns in the Management Of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management. 2018 Mar:43(3):158-162 [PubMed PMID: 29491698]
Masood B, Lepping P, Romanov D, Poole R. Treatment of Alcohol-Induced Psychotic Disorder (Alcoholic Hallucinosis)-A Systematic Review. Alcohol and alcoholism (Oxford, Oxfordshire). 2018 May 1:53(3):259-267. doi: 10.1093/alcalc/agx090. Epub [PubMed PMID: 29145545]Level 1 (high-level) evidence
Fouarge E, Maquet P. [Neurological consequences of alcoholism]. Revue medicale de Liege. 2019 May:74(5-6):310-313 [PubMed PMID: 31206272]
Yamarthi P, Kannuri NK. Enabling factors for behavior change among people with alcohol dependency: An exploratory study in a mental health-care facility. Indian journal of public health. 2019 Jul-Sep:63(3):233-238. doi: 10.4103/ijph.IJPH_364_18. Epub [PubMed PMID: 31552854]
Sullivan SM, Dewey BN, Jarrell DH, Vadiei N, Patanwala AE. Comparison of phenobarbital-adjunct versus benzodiazepine-only approach for alcohol withdrawal syndrome in the ED. The American journal of emergency medicine. 2019 Jul:37(7):1313-1316. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2018.10.007. Epub 2018 Oct 11 [PubMed PMID: 30414743]
Manning V, Garfield JBB, Campbell SC, Reynolds J, Staiger PK, Lum JAG, Hall K, Wiers RW, Lubman DI, Verdejo-Garcia A. Protocol for a randomised controlled trial of cognitive bias modification training during inpatient withdrawal from alcohol use disorder. Trials. 2018 Nov 1:19(1):598. doi: 10.1186/s13063-018-2999-3. Epub 2018 Nov 1 [PubMed PMID: 30382877]Level 1 (high-level) evidence
Gupta NM, Lindenauer PK, Yu PC, Imrey PB, Haessler S, Deshpande A, Higgins TL, Rothberg MB. Association Between Alcohol Use Disorders and Outcomes of Patients Hospitalized With Community-Acquired Pneumonia. JAMA network open. 2019 Jun 5:2(6):e195172. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.5172. Epub 2019 Jun 5 [PubMed PMID: 31173120]