Alcohol withdrawal in the critical care unit

Publication Date



Managing acute alcohol withdrawal in critical care presents a unique challenge to the critical care nurse. The prominence of alcohol use within the Australian community means that many critical care admissions involve acute alcohol withdrawal, an alcohol induced illness, or indeed an unrelated admission with underlying heavy alcohol intake.

Current statistics suggest 1 in 5 Australians drink to ‘risky’ levels each month. This suggests that most critical care nurses will encounter a patient who is experiencing active withdrawal from alcohol, often without clear physiological symptomatology. Acute alcohol withdrawal delirium can be difficult to distinguish from other forms of delirium and in the absence of a comprehensive history, alcohol withdrawal and its sequelae may go untreated.

Contemporary management guidelines for alcohol withdrawal suggest a common framework of first line benzodiazepine usage, with emerging research focusing on adjunctive therapy aimed at reducing benzodiazepine doses, and therefore reducing length of stay in the critical care unit. The controversial therapy of ethanol infusion and common assessment and withdrawal scales are examined in relation to their usefulness in critical care.

Alcohol withdrawal management in critical care necessitates careful nursing assessment, including alcohol usage history, delirium management, withdrawal assessment and symptomatic relief using an evidence-based protocol.


School of Nursing, Midwifery & Paramedicine

Document Type

Journal Article

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ERA Access