Alcohol Withdrawal: Special Issues

Danger signEven with an effective screening process, a solid treatment plan, and regular monitoring, patients withdrawing from alcohol can be in danger. Seizures and Delirium Tremens (DTs) can derail an otherwise effective withdrawal program. That is why it is also important to consider patient safety when making management decisions.

Safe Housing

Withdrawing patients are prone to falls and injury. Decreased liver functioning from long alcohol use causes increased bleeding tendencies that lead to hematoma formation, making head injury dangerous. Hallucinations and delirium can lead to erratic behavior and friction with officers and other inmates. Officers need to be aware of any inmates they are monitoring who are withdrawing. Those with potential for confusion, agitation, seizures, or delirium should be housed in the most protective manner possible.

Complicating Circumstances

Chronic conditions and past injuries can make alcohol withdrawal even more perilous than usual. According to Federal Bureau of Prison guidelines, withdrawing patients who have any of these additional conditions should have even close monitoring and additional safety precautions.

  • Cardiac Conditions: Sympathetic hyperactivity, common as high levels of alcohol are withdrawn, can agitate a weakened heart. A slower taper of benzodiazepine therapy is recommended for this group of patients.
  • Elderly: Older alcoholics may not show the usual signs of sympathetic hyperactivity so they may progress to severe withdrawal symptoms without any warning. Higher levels of chronic diseases and greater use of prescription drugs in this patient population increases chances of co-morbid complications and drug interactions. Aging causes decreased drug metabolism that can affect the adjustment of medications during the treatment tapering process.
  • History of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): Past brain injury increases the likelihood of seizures or DTs.
  • Liver or Kidney Disease: Chronic liver or kidney disease leads to poor metabolism of medication that requires closer monitoring as treatments are tapered.
  • Pre-existing Psychiatric Conditions: Alcohol can ameliorate psychiatric conditions. Mental illness symptoms may re-emerge once alcohol is no longer in the system. Severe depression, in particular, can lead to attempts at self-harm and suicide. Another reason for close monitoring.
  • Pregnant Inmates: Pregnancy complicates the withdrawal process by adding a second patient. Coordination of alcohol withdrawal with an obstetrical specialist is highly recommended, especially if there is also concern about drug use. Many correctional settings are not equipped or staffed to manage complex situations so transfer to an acute care facility is often the best option.
  • Seizure Disorders: A history of seizure disorders or already being under medical management for seizures increases the potential for withdrawal seizures. This history should be considered when tapering from benzodiazepine treatment. A slower taper is recommended for these patients.

How do you handle alcohol withdrawal for patients with these additional considerations? Share your tips in the comments section of this post.

To read more about alcohol and drug withdrawal in the correctional setting see Chapter 5 in the Essentials of Correctional Nursing. The text can be ordered directly from the publisher and if you use Promo Code AF1402 the price is discounted by $15 off and shipping is free.

Photo Credit: © fejas – Fotolia.com

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