A 42-year-old man with a history of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hypertension, and alcohol use disorder (AUD) presents to the ED requesting alcohol detoxification. He has had six admissions in the last six months for alcohol detoxification. Two years ago, the patient had a documented alcohol withdrawal seizure. His last drink was eight hours ago, and he currently drinks a liter of vodka a day. On exam, his pulse rate is 126 bpm, and his blood pressure is 162/91 mm Hg. He appears anxious and has bilateral hand tremors. His serum ethanol level is 388.6 mg/dL.
DSM-5 integrated alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence that were previously classified in DSM-IV into AUDs with mild, moderate, and severe subclassifications. AUDs are the most serious substance abuse problem in the U.S. In the general population, the lifetime prevalence of alcohol abuse is 17.8% and of alcohol dependence is 12.5%.1–3 One study estimates that 24% of adult patients brought to the ED by ambulance suffer from alcoholism, and approximately 10% to 32% of hospitalized medical patients have an AUD.4–8 Patients who stop drinking will develop alcohol withdrawal as early as six hours after their last drink (see Figure 1). The majority of patients at risk of alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) will develop only minor uncomplicated symptoms, but up to 20% will develop symptoms associated with complicated AWS, including withdrawal seizures and delirium tremens (DT).9 It is not entirely clear why some individuals suffer from more severe withdrawal symptoms than others, but genetic predisposition may play a role.10
DT is a syndrome characterized by agitation, disorientation, hallucinations, and autonomic instability (tachycardia, hypertension, hyperthermia, and diaphoresis) in the setting of acute reduction or abstinence from alcohol and is associated with a mortality rate as high as 20%.11 Complicated AWS is associated with increased in-hospital morbidity and mortality, longer lengths of stay, inflated costs of care, increased burden and frustration of nursing and medical staff, and worse cognitive functioning.9 In 80% of cases, the symptoms of uncomplicated alcohol withdrawal do not require aggressive medical intervention and usually disappear within two to seven days of the last drink.12 Physicians making triage decisions for patients who present to the ED in need of detoxification face a difficult dilemma concerning inpatient versus outpatient treatment.
Review of the Data
The literature on both inpatient and outpatient management and treatment of AWS is well-described. Currently, there are no guidelines or consensus on whether to admit patients with alcohol abuse syndromes to the hospital when the request for detoxification is made. Admission should be considered for all patients experiencing alcohol withdrawal who present to the ED.13 Patients with mild AWS may be discharged if they do not require admission for an additional medical condition, but patients experiencing moderate to severe withdrawal require admission for monitoring and treatment. Many physicians use a simple assessment of past history of DT and pulse rate, which may be easily evaluated in clinical settings, to readily identify patients who are at high risk of developing DT during an alcohol dependence period.14
Since 1978, the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol (CIWA) has been consistently used for both monitoring patients with alcohol withdrawal and for making an initial assessment. CIWA-Ar was developed as a revised scale and is frequently used to monitor the severity of ongoing alcohol withdrawal and the response to treatment for the clinical care of patients in alcohol withdrawal (see Figure 2). CIWA-Ar was not developed to identify patients at risk for AWS but is frequently used to determine if patients require admission to the hospital for detoxification.15 Patients with CIWA-Ar scores > 15 require inpatient detoxification. Patients with scores between 8 and 15 should be admitted if they have a history of prior seizures or DT but could otherwise be considered for outpatient detoxification. Patients with scores < 8, which are considered mild alcohol withdrawal, can likely be safely treated as outpatients unless they have a history of DT or alcohol withdrawal seizures.16 Because symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal are often not present for more than six hours after the patient’s last drink, or often longer, CIWA-Ar is limited and does not identify patients who are otherwise at high risk for complicated withdrawal. A protocol was developed incorporating the patient’s history of alcohol withdrawal seizure, DT, and the CIWA to evaluate the outcome of outpatient versus inpatient detoxification.16