Background: Decreased consciousness is a common reason for presentation to the emergency department (ED) and admission to acute hospital beds. In trauma, a Glasgow Coma Scale score (GCS) of 8 or less indicates a need for endotracheal intubation. Some advocate a similar approach for other causes of decreased consciousness, however, the loss of airway reflexes and risk of aspiration cannot be reliably predicted using the GCS alone.
Study objective: A survey of all poisoned patients with a decreased GCS who were admitted to an ED short-stay ward staffed by experienced emergency physicians, to establish the incidence of clinically significant aspiration or other morbidities and endotracheal intubation.
Methods: A prospective, observational study was conducted of all patients admitted to the ED short-stay ward with a decreased level of consciousness (GCS < 15).
Results: The study included 73 patients with decreased consciousness as a result of drug or alcohol intoxication. The GCS ranged from 3 to 14, and 12 patients had a GCS of 8 or less. No patient with a GCS of 8 or less aspirated or required intubation. There was one patient who required intubation; this patient had a GCS of 12 on admission to the ward.
Conclusions: This study suggests that it can be safe to observe poisoned patients with decreased consciousness, even if they have a GCS of 8 or less, in the ED.