Should the CIWA-Ar be the standard monitoring strategy for alcohol withdrawal syndrome in the intensive care unit?

Addict Sci Clin Pract. 2021 Mar 24;16(1):21. doi: 10.1186/s13722-021-00226-w.


Background: The Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol-Revised (CIWA-Ar) is commonly used in hospitals to titrate medications for alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), but may be difficult to apply to intensive care unit (ICU) patients who are too sick or otherwise unable to communicate.

Objectives: To evaluate the frequency of CIWA-Ar monitoring among ICU patients with AWS and variation in CIWA-Ar monitoring across patient demographic and clinical characteristics.

Methods: The study included all adults admitted to an ICU in 2017 after treatment for AWS in the Emergency Department of an academic hospital that standardly uses the CIWA-Ar to assess AWS severity and response to treatment. Demographic and clinical data, including Richmond Agitation-Sedation Scale (RASS) assessments (an alternative measure of agitation/sedation), were obtained via chart review. Associations between patient characteristics and CIWA-Ar monitoring were tested using logistic regression.

Results: After treatment for AWS, only 56% (n = 54/97) of ICU patients were evaluated using the CIWA-Ar; 94% of patients had a documented RASS assessment (n = 91/97). Patients were significantly less likely to receive CIWA-Ar monitoring if they were intubated or identified as Black.

Conclusions: CIWA-Ar monitoring was used inconsistently in ICU patients with AWS and completed less often in those who were intubated or identified as Black. These hypothesis-generating findings raise questions about the utility of the CIWA-Ar in ICU settings. Future studies should assess alternative measures for titrating AWS medications in the ICU that do not require verbal responses from patients and further explore the association of race with AWS monitoring.

Keywords: Alcohol-induced disorders; Critical care; Drug monitoring; Hypnotics and sedatives; Monitoring; Nervous system; Quality of health care; physiologic.

Publication types

  • Letter
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcoholism* / diagnosis
  • Alcoholism* / epidemiology
  • Alcoholism* / therapy
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Ethanol
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome* / diagnosis
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome* / epidemiology
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome* / therapy


  • Benzodiazepines
  • Ethanol