A 57-year-old man with a history of alcohol abuse (no history of seizures) presents to the ED “feeling awful.” He claims his last drink was 1 day prior. Initial vital signs are: T = 99.1°F, HR 102 bpm, BP 162/85 mm Hg, respirations 18/minute, and 99% oxygen saturation. He is tremulous, diaphoretic, and has an unsteady gait. What is the best way to manage his symptoms while hospitalized?
Brief overview of the issue
With over 15 million people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the United States alone, alcohol dependence and misuse remain significant issues among hospitalized patients.1 It is estimated that over 20% of admitted patients meet DSM-5 criteria for AUD and that over 2 million will withdraw each year.2,3 Acute withdrawal includes a spectrum of symptoms ranging from mild anxiety and diaphoresis to hallucinations, seizures, and delirium tremens. Onset of these symptoms ranges from 24 hours up to 5 days.
Severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome (SAWS) attributable to abrupt discontinuation of alcohol leads to increased morbidity and mortality; therefore, early detection and prevention in the acute care setting is critical. Several factors can help predict who may withdraw, and once detected, pharmacological treatment is necessary.4 Thorough evaluation and treatment can help reduce mortality from the most severe forms of alcohol withdrawal including delirium tremens, which has up to 40% mortality if left untreated.5
Overview of the data
How do we use benzodiazepines to treat alcohol withdrawal?
Benzodiazepines are the mainstay of alcohol withdrawal treatment. Benzodiazepines work by stimulating the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor resulting in a reduction of neuronal activity. This leads to a sedative effect and thus slows the progression of withdrawal symptoms.
Long-acting benzodiazepines, such as chlordiazepoxide and diazepam, are the preferred choices for most patients. Their active metabolites have a rapid onset of action and their long half-lives allow for a lower incidence of breakthrough symptoms and rebound phenomena such as seizures.6 Benzodiazepines with shorter half-lives, such as lorazepam and oxazepam, are preferred in patients with liver dysfunction and those prone to respiratory depression.
Intravenous administration has a rapid onset of action and is the standard administration route of choice in patients with acute severe withdrawal, delirium tremens, and seizure activity. In patients with mild withdrawal symptoms or those in the outpatient setting, oral administration is generally effective.6
The Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment (CIWA) is one commonly used titration model that requires calculation of a symptom-based withdrawal score. Data have consistently demonstrated that a symptom-triggered method results in administration of less total benzodiazepines over a significantly shorter duration, thereby reducing cost and duration of treatment and minimizing side effects. This regimen may also reduce the risk of undermedicating or overmedicating a patient since the dosing is based upon an individual’s symptoms.7,8
The efficacy of symptom-triggered regimens however, depends on the reliability and accuracy of the patient assessment. A fixed-interval benzodiazepine-dosing approach where benzodiazepines are administered regardless of symptoms is useful when frequent monitoring and reassessment are not feasible or are unreliable.