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 rates for patients who experience delirium tremens is anywhere from 1-5%.
Ethanol is the primary alcohol ingested by chronic users. It is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that the body becomes reliant on over time. 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.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous center. GABA has very specific 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.
Alcohol withdrawal can range from very mild symptoms to the 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 volume typically ingested. Most cases should be described by their severity of symptoms, not the time since their last drink. Noting the last drink is very important however 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 insomnia, tremulousness, hyperreflexia, anxiety, gastrointestinal upset, headache, palpitations.
Moderate symptoms include 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. Basic 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 in the scale include the presence of:
Some literature recommends checking an alcohol level at the time of onset of symptoms as patients who are symptomatic 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 have 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 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 lot of salicylates or acetaminophen so consider checking aspirin and acetaminophen levels in patients presenting with alcohol withdrawal.
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 (Valium) or intravenous lorazepam (Ativan) 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:
Withdrawal seizures can typically be managed with benzodiazepines as well, but may require adjunct therapy with phenytoin, barbiturates, and may even require intubation and sedation with propofol (Diprivan), ketamine (Ketalar), or in the most severe cases dexmedetomidine (Precedex).
Oral chlordiazepoxide (Librium) and oxazepam (Serax) are very commonly used for prevention of withdrawal symptoms. Other drugs that are often used to manage symptoms include neuroleptics, anticonvulsants like carbamazepine and divalproex.
Propofol is used to manage refractory cases of delirium tremens and baclofen can be used to treat muscle spasms.
Toxic alcohol co-ingestions should be managed with the assistance of a toxicologist.
Alcoholics tend to have nutritional deficiencies and thus should be provided with folic and thiamine supplements. Some patients may benefit from magnesium supplements.
Patients with a history of alcohol dependence may have confounding social or underlying psychiatric issues that you should also be aware of once they are stabilized. They will likely require a multidisciplinary approach before discharge.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually appear when the individual discontinues or reduces the intake of alcohol after a period of prolonged consumption. However, healthcare workers should be aware that alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be serious 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 serious.
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 very common in society, all healthcare workers including the nurse and pharmacist should be familiar with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and management. Nurses looking after 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 outcomes are guarded. Despite optimal treatment, the condition is associated with mortality rates of 1-5%. (Level V)
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