Managing alcohol withdrawal in the hospitalized patient


A daily multivitamin and folate are ordered. What about thiamine? Does the route matter?

Alarmingly, 80% of people who chronically abuse alcohol are thiamine deficient.13 This deficiency is attributable to several factors including inadequate oral intake, malabsorption, and decreased cellular utilization. Thiamine is a crucial factor in multiple enzymatic and metabolic pathways. Its deficiency can lead to free radical production, neurotoxicity, impaired glucose metabolism, and ultimately, cell death.14 A clinical concern stemming from thiamine deficiency is the development of Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE), which is potentially reversible with prompt recognition and treatment, in comparison to its irreversible amnestic sequela, Korsakoff’s syndrome.

Dr. Dahlia Rizk, Mount Sinai Beth Israel, New York

Dr. Dahlia Rizk

Wernicke’s encephalopathy had been defined as a triad of ataxia, ophthalmoplegia, and global confusion. However, Harper et al. discovered that only 16% of patients presented with the classic triad and 19% had none of these signs.15 Diagnosis is clinical since thiamine serology results do not accurately represent brain storage.

Currently, there are no consistent guidelines regarding repletion of thiamine administration in the treatment or prevention of WE attributable to alcohol overuse. Thiamine has a safe toxicity profile as excess thiamine is excreted in the urine. Outside of rare reports of anaphylactoid reactions involving large parenteral doses, there is no concern for overtreatment. As Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is associated with significant morbidity and mortality, high doses such as 200 to 500 mg are recommended to ensure blood-brain barrier passage. The intravenous route is optimal over oral administration to bypass concerns of gastrointestinal malabsorption. Thiamine 100 mg by mouth daily for ongoing supplementation can be considered for patients who are at risk for WE. It is also important to recognize that magnesium and thiamine are intertwined in several key enzymatic pathways. To optimize the responsiveness of thiamine repletion, magnesium levels should be tested and repleted if low.

Application of the data to our patient

Nurses are able to frequently monitor the patient so he is started on symptom-triggered treatment with chlordiazepoxide using the CIWA protocol. This strategy will help limit the amount of benzodiazepines he receives and shorten his treatment duration. Given the ataxia, the patient is also started on high-dose IV thiamine three times a day to treat possible Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Gabapentin is added to his regimen to help manage his moderate alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Bottom line

Long-acting benzodiazepines using symptom-triggered administration when feasible are the mainstay of treating alcohol withdrawal. Other medications such as gabapentin, carbamazepine, and phenobarbital can be considered as adjunctive agents. Given the high rate of thiamine deficiency and the low risk of overreplacement, intravenous thiamine can be considered for inpatients with AWS.

Dr. Agrawal, Dr. Chernyavsky, Dr. Dharapak, Dr. Grabscheid, Dr. Merrill, Dr. Pillay, and Dr. Rizk are hospitalists at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York.


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