Managing alcohol withdrawal in the hospitalized patient


Key points

  • Alcohol use disorder and alcohol withdrawal are significant problems in hospitalized patients; early detection and treatment are crucial in preventing high morbidity and mortality.
  • Long acting benzodiazepines with active metabolites such as chlordiazepoxide and diazepam are the preferred treatment for alcohol withdrawal except for patients with advanced liver disease or those prone to respiratory depression.
  • Symptom-triggered therapy decreases the amount of medication, shortens treatment duration, and decreases inpatient length of stay, compared with fixed schedule dosing.
  • Gabapentin may be effective in the treatment of mild to moderate AWS but cannot yet be routinely recommended as monotherapy in severe withdrawal, in patients with seizure history, or in patients who are at high risk for progression to delirium tremens.
  • Thiamine deficiency is common in chronic alcohol use disorders; thiamine repletion should be considered for patients at risk or when Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome are suspected.

Additional reading

1. Perry EC. Inpatient management of acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome. CNS Drugs. 2014;28(5):401-10.

2. Mayo-Smith MF. Pharmacological management of alcohol withdrawal: A meta-analysis and evidence-based practice guideline. JAMA. 1997;278(2):144-51.

3. Michael F. Mayo-Smith, MD, MPH et al. for the Working Group on the Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium, Practice Guidelines Committee, American Society of Addiction Medicine. Management of alcohol withdrawal delirium: An evidence-based practice guideline. Arch Intern Med. 2004;164(13):1405-12.


A 51-year-old female with a history of hypertension and continuous alcohol abuse presents to the hospital with fever and cough. She is found to have community-acquired pneumonia and is admitted for treatment. How else would you manage this patient?

A. Start scheduled benzodiazepines and oral thiamine.

B. Start CIWA protocol using a long-acting benzodiazepine and oral thiamine.

C. Start scheduled benzodiazepines and IV thiamine.

D. Start CIWA protocol using a long-acting benzodiazepine and consider IV or oral thiamine.

Answer: D. Symptom-triggered benzodiazepine therapy is favored as is consideration for thiamine repletion in the treatment of AWS.


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