Background: Although benzodiazepines are the recommended first-line therapy for the prevention of alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), the administration of intravenous ethanol as an alternative prophylactic agent persists in many surgical ICUs. Advocates of this therapy argue that ethanol provides effective prophylaxis against AWS without the excessive sedation observed with benzodiazepine therapy. No study to date, however, has compared the two therapies with regard to their sedative effects. The purpose of this study was to prospectively evaluate the efficacy of intravenous ethanol compared with benzodiazepines for the prevention of AWS with particular emphasis on the sedative effects of each therapy.
Methods: During a 15-month period, trauma patients admitted to the ICU with a history of chronic daily alcohol consumption greater than or equal to five beverage equivalents per day were prospectively randomized to one of two 4-day prophylactic regimens: intravenous ethanol infusion (EtOH) versus scheduled-dose diazepam (BENZO). Patients were evaluated with the Riker sedation-agitation scale, a 7-point instrument for the subjective assessment of both sedation (1 = unarousable) and agitation (7 = dangerous agitation). According to protocol, regimens were titrated to achieve and maintain a Riker score of 4 (calm and cooperative). Deviation from a score of 4 during the course of treatment was compared between groups.
Results: Fifty patients met study criteria and were randomized after obtainment of informed consent (EtOH, n = 26; BENZO, n = 24). Overall, the EtOH group had a significantly greater proportion of patients who deviated from a score of 4 during the course of treatment (p = 0.020). In both groups, the majority of deviation from a score of 4 reflected periods of under-sedation rather than over-sedation. One patient in the EtOH group failed treatment, requiring diazepam and haloperidol for control of AWS symptoms as per protocol, whereas no patient in the BENZO group failed treatment (p = NS).
Conclusion: Concerning the prophylaxis of AWS, intravenous ethanol offers no advantage over diazepam with respect to efficacy or adverse sedative effects. The purported benefit of intravenous ethanol as a prophylactic agent against AWS was not evident.