Symptom-Triggered Alcohol Detoxification

A Guideline for use in the Clinical Decisions Unit of the Emergency Department.


  • This method of detoxification is an alternative to the fixed-dose treatment strategy in standard use currently
  • Duration of detoxification is reduced but more monitoring of withdrawal symptoms is required
  • Patients with overt or suspected alcohol withdrawal are objectively assessed for presence of significant withdrawal features at regular intervals. Severity of withdrawal is assessed using a standardised scale (the CIWA-Ar)
  • If found to have significant withdrawal, the patient is given a stat dose of a Benzodiazepine (Diazepam 20 mg). This procedure of standardised assessment and treatment is repeated every 90 minutes until the patient is no longer "in withdrawal" and detoxification is complete
  • Print CIWA-AR scale & instructions

Which patients are suitable for symptom-triggered detoxification?

Use in alcohol-dependent adult patients for the treatment of withdrawal in CDU only.

  • Patients with a history of previous alcohol-withdrawal seizures or delirium tremens are also suitable

Which patients are NOT suitable for symptom-triggered detoxification?

  • Patients with dependency on other drugs in addition to alcohol
  • Patients with severe liver impairment or other major physical illness
  • Patients who are unable to communicate

When to use the CIWA-Ar scale

The CIWA-Ar is a standardised assessment scale for symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. The scale should be administered when:

  • the patient reports withdrawal symptoms or shows signs of withdrawal
  • the patient’s history indicates a likelihood of withdrawal reaction:
    • drinking large amounts of alcohol over a long time
    • history of withdrawal symptoms
    • last drink within the past 12 hours

If history is not clear, observe for signs of withdrawal as some with dependent drinking will deny it.

How to use the CIWA-A scale

  • Take the scale with you when assessing the patient. Ask each question as it appears on the CIWA-Ar and assign a score to each item. Speak slowly and clearly and reword questions, if necessary. Do not contradict what the patient tells you
  • Adjust the score based on the subjective and objective signs and symptoms. Add up the number of points and assign a total score
  • Measure the "vital signs". These are not factored into the overall scoring but they provide important clinical information. Slight derangement of these signs is common
  • Please Record Vital Signs and Neurological Observations separately every 90 minutes
  • Print CIWA-AR scale & instructions

What to do next

  • If CIWA-Ar score >10, give Diazepam 20mg po stat (See Drug chart for prescription of Diazepam)
  • If the CIWA-Ar score is </= 10 give no medication
  • After 90 minutes, reassess symptoms of withdrawal, using the CIWA-Ar again. If CIWA-Ar score >10 give diazepam 20mg po stat
  • Repeat the above process every 90 minutes until CIWA-Ar score <10 on 3 consecutive occasions. At this point, formal "detoxification" is complete and CIWA-Ar assessments may be stopped
  • Continue then to monitor informally, to ensure there is no re-emergence of symptoms

What to expect

A large minority may not require Diazepam at all as CIWA-A score will be <10 from the outset. Expect a median duration of "detoxification" of 8 hours.

What if CIWA-Ar score remains >10 after 24 hours.

Some patients may remain symptomatic despite prolonged (i.e. >24 hours) CIWA-Ar monitoring and Benzodiazepine treatment. The diagnosis of Alcohol Withdrawal should be reviewed. Look for other causes (ie benzodiazepine dependency, drug seeking behaviour, organic agitation as part of delirium or other cause). Discontinue CIWA-Ar detoxification, consider other drug treatment strategies and, if necessary, investigate further.

What about Pabrinex?

  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is a neurological syndrome of Vitamin B deficiency that may have serious sequelae
  • Prophalaxis against Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome should be given to all alcohol-dependent patients in CDU as follows: Pabrinex (Ampoules I & II) (total 2 vials) iv once a day for 3 days. Pabrinex should be diluted in 100ml Saline or Dextrose (infused over 30 minutes)
  • In patients with signs of possible WKS, (i.e. acute delirium, ataxia, gaze palsy), give 2 pairs of Pabrinex (Ampoules I & II) three times daily and continue for as long as symptoms are improving
  • Print CIWA-AR scale & instructions


  • EMJ Article on CIWA in clinical practice
  • Saitz R, et. al. Individualized Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal. A Randomized Double-blind Controlled Trial. JAMA. 1994;272(7):519-523.
  • Day E. Evaluation of a symptom-triggered front-loading detoxification technique for alcohol dependence: a pilot study. Psychiatric Bulletin (2004) 28: 407-410
  • Harden R, Page AV. An audit of symptom-triggered chlordiazepoxide treatment of alcohol withdrawal on a medical admissions unit. Emerg Med J 2005;22:805-806
  • Sullivan JT, Skykora K, Schneiderman J. Assessment of alcohol withdrawal: the revised Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol Scale (CIWA-Ar). Br J Addict 1989;84:1353-7
  • Heinälä P, Piepponen T, Heikkinen H. Diazepam loading in alcohol withdrawal: clinical pharmacokinetics. Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther Toxicol. 1990 May;28(5):211-7.

Content by Prof Eugene Cassidy. Last review Dr √ćOS 12/04/23.