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Alcohol Use Disorder


Key Points

  • Alcohol use disorder is a problematic pattern of compulsive and uncontrolled alcohol use associated with clinically significant impairment or distress as defined by DSM-5 criteria
  • Often heritable, chronic, and progressive; patients with continued alcohol problems experience a 3- to 4-fold increased rate of premature deathr1
  • Presentation is highly variable; however, general characterizations include inability to control drinking, continued drinking despite knowledge of consequences, and neglect of responsibilities
  • Common manifestations include cravings, obsessions and compulsions regarding alcohol use, tolerance, blackouts, withdrawal, and consequences of disease (eg, health, relationship, legal, financial, employment, educational)
  • Screening for unhealthy alcohol use is recommended by several guidelines and organizations
  • Patients with a positive screen require further evaluation to determine if patient is a risky drinker or has alcohol use disorder; diagnosis of alcohol use disorder is based on DSM-5 criteria
  • Management of patients with risky drinking behavior involves brief behavioral counseling and close follow-up
  • Management of alcohol use disorder is individualized and multidimensional; most effective strategy combines both psychosocial interventions (eg, counseling, mutual help groups) and use of medication (eg, naltrexone, acamprosate)
  • Comorbid psychiatric and behavioral issues are not uncommon in patients with disorder and often require additional specialized management
  • Complications related to alcohol use disorder are numerous and include potential serious health problems, social problems, withdrawal-related complications, and premature death
  • Disorder is not an intractable condition; patients with effectively treated disease have a promising prognosis. Various treatment approaches result in a 1- to 5-year abstinence rate between 15% and 35%r2

Urgent Action

  • Patients with moderate to severe withdrawal require urgent management of manifestations; benzodiazepines are the most commonly used pharmacotherapy for medical management of alcohol withdrawal d1
  • Certain patient populations at high risk for further disease-related health consequences (eg, pregnant women, patients presenting with severe hepatic impairment) require urgent treatment with goal of abstinence
  • Unresponsive patients with alcohol intoxication and life-threatening high blood alcohol concentrations require emergent care to protect airway and vital functions and to monitor for hypoglycemia


  • Universal screening for unhealthy alcohol use is recommended; despite recommendations, most adults are not screened for unhealthy alcohol use by medical providers in the primary care setting r2
  • Patients may not be rigorously honest (ie, may deny or minimize) in reporting amount and frequency of consumption; history obtained from family and friends may depict a more accurate account of consumption history
  • Most patients with alcohol use disorder do not receive appropriate multimodal treatment
    • Recommendations regarding appropriate counseling and mutual help group interventions for unhealthy alcohol use are in place; despite recommendations, most patients do not receive appropriate interventions r2r3
    • Pharmacotherapy for alcohol use disorder is appropriate and effective for many patients; despite evidence that it is effective, pharmacotherapy is often underused r3r4r5
  • Maintain a high degree of suspicion for alcohol use disorder in patients presenting with unexplained medical diagnosis that may represent potential complications related to disorder; patients with unhealthy alcohol consumption may not be forthright with amount and frequency of alcohol intake (minimization, denial)
    • Alcohol-related hypertension is a leading cause of reversible hypertension


Clinical Clarification

  • Alcohol use disorder is a problematic pattern of compulsive and uncontrolled alcohol use associated with clinically significant impairment or distress as defined by DSM-5 criteria r5
  • Disease is often heritable, chronic, and progressive r6
  • Presentation is highly variable but is characterized by inability to control drinking, continued drinking despite knowledge of consequences, and neglect of responsibilities r7


  • Unhealthy alcohol use
    • Overarching term that includes unhealthy alcohol consumption and risky drinking behaviors r8
      • Estimated prevalence is more than 20% among adults in the United States r2
    • Risky drinking behaviors
      • Drinking amounts of alcohol that exceed recommended limits and increase risk for health consequences without meeting DSM-5 criteria for alcohol use disorder r2
        • Maximum recommended limits for men younger than 65 years r2
          • 4 or fewer standard drinks per day and 14 or fewer per week
        • Maximum recommended limits for women and for men aged 65 years and older r2
          • 3 or fewer standard drinks per day and 7 or fewer per week
        • Standard drink equals about 14 g of absolute ethanol; this equates to approximately: r9
          • 12 oz of 5% ethanol beer
          • 5 oz of 12% ethanol wine
          • 1.5 oz of 80 proof liquor
      • Binge drinking
        • Defined as 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more drinks for women in a day (or on the same occasion) during the preceding month r5
        • Pattern of alcohol consumption that results in elevation of blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 g/dL or more within 2 hours r10
      • Consumption of any amount of alcohol in specific patient populations may be considered risky:
        • Pregnant women
        • Patients with a health condition caused or exacerbated by alcohol (eg, pancreatitis, alcoholic liver disease)
    • Alcohol use disorder
      • Problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress as defined by DSM-5 criteria (meeting at least 2 of 11 criteria within a 12-month period) r11
        • Classified as mild, moderate, or severe based on criteria for condition during the past year r4
      • Previous iterations of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III and DSM-IV) separated diagnosis of alcohol-related disorders into alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. This older nomenclature is now out of favor in lieu of current diagnostic terminology: alcohol use disorder with specified severity (mild, moderate, or severe). Craving was added to the criteria in the newest classification r2
        • Previous term alcohol abuse in general correlates with milder alcohol use disorder, whereas alcohol dependence correlates with more severe alcohol use disorder r7


Clinical Presentation


  • General
    • Ignorance about and stigma surrounding this disease are barriers to obtaining accurate history
      • Patients may not be forthright with amount and frequency of alcohol consumption; denial and minimization are common c1c2
      • Provider must develop a positive and supportive relationship and not show bias
      • History obtained from family and friends may provide a more accurate account of consumption history
    • Clinical presentation is highly variable r6
  • Course and development of disease
    • First episode of intoxication often occurs in middle teen years r11c3
    • Most patients who develop alcohol use disorder do so by their late 20s; about 10% develop the condition after age 40 years r11
    • Earlier onset of disease is associated with patients who start becoming intoxicated younger and who had conduct problems before they began drinking r11
    • Disease course is highly variable but often is marked by periods of remission and relapse
      • Characteristic remission and relapse pattern:
        • Stop drinking in response to crisis or serious consequence
        • Resume drinking after a period of abstinence with an initial, brief period of more controlled drinking
        • Rapid escalation in consumption ensues and severe problems again develop
  • Typical drinking behavior characteristics and other manifestations based on severity of unhealthy alcohol use r7
    • Risky drinking behavior
      • Patients often do not regularly drink much above maximum recommended limits
    • Mild alcohol use disorder
      • Patients often drink more heavily than patients with risky drinking behavior but may not drink daily
      • Typical consumption is fewer than 40 drinks per week, and serious withdrawal manifestations are often lacking
    • Moderate alcohol use disorder
      • Patients usually drink daily and may have some withdrawal manifestations when they stop
      • Some do not drink daily but have heavy binge drinking behavior
    • Severe alcohol use disorder
      • Patients are usually daily drinkers who consume more than 40 drinks weekly
      • Significant withdrawal symptoms usually are present, and serious life consequences develop
  • Primary manifestations consistent with alcohol use disorder include:
    • Craving phenomenon
      • Patients are unable to reliably stop drinking once they start c4c5
    • Obsessions and compulsions surrounding alcohol
      • Strong desire and preoccupation with planning next drinking event, obtaining alcohol, and hiding alcohol, and seeming inability to avoid initiating consumption c6
      • Patients often report unsuccessful attempts to cut back or quit drinking c7
    • Tolerance
      • Require increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect, or there is diminished effect with continued use of same amount of alcohol c8
    • Blackouts c9
      • Manifest as complete or partial amnesia for events during any part of a drinking episode without loss of consciousness and without relative loss of other skill deficits (eg, maintain relative ability to perform other functional skills such as walking, talking, and even driving) r12
      • Relatively rapid increase in blood alcohol concentration is most consistently associated with increased likelihood of blackout r12
    • Withdrawal d1
      • Often one of the last manifestations of disease to appear after other aspects of disease have developed r11
      • Minor (eg, headache, tremor, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, anxiety) or major (eg, hallucinations, seizure, delirium tremens) withdrawal symptoms may be reported with diminished alcohol use or abstinence c10c11c12c13c14c15c16c17c18
      • Symptoms may be relieved by drinking alcohol (eg, early morning or afternoon alcohol consumption) or by taking another drug closely related to alcohol (eg, a benzodiazepine)
  • Additional manifestations that often occur secondary to progression of disease
    • Use of alcohol in hazardous situations (eg, driving car, operating machinery, swimming) c19c20
    • Life consequences commonly develop; continued consumption of alcohol may occur despite consequences
      • Common consequences
        • Legal (eg, arrests, incarceration) and conduct (eg, violence) problems c21
        • Relationship strains (eg, marital discord, estrangement from close relatives or friends) c22
        • Employment, financial, and educational consequences (eg, absences, failure to meet responsibilities, poor performance and productivity, job related accidents, loss of job) c23c24c25c26c27c28c29c30c31c32
        • Organ changes (eg, liver disease, gastritis, endocrine disturbance, persistent insomnia, and depression) c33c34c35c36
    • Hopelessness, depression, and anxiety c37c38c39
      • Often accompanied by overarching feelings and emotions such as:
        • Guilt, shame, and remorse secondary to perceived harm caused to self and others while drinking c40c41c42
        • Deep anger and resentment c43c44
        • Intense fears c45
    • Isolation c46
      • From people (eg, family, friends, colleagues) and from social and/or recreational activities previously enjoyed
  • Common personality traits and characteristics in patients with active disorder (occur and/or worsen as a result of the disorder) may include:
  • Initially, patients may present with symptoms secondary to complications related to alcohol use disorder, such as:
    • Unexplained primary medical complications (eg, hypertension, pancreatitis, elevated liver function test results, fatty liver) c53c54c55c56
    • Child born with fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder c57c58
    • Falls associated with significant injury (eg, extensive bruising, epidural hematoma) c59c60
    • Traumatic injury associated with operating machinery or vehicles while intoxicated c61c62
    • Traumatic injury associated with violence while intoxicated c63
    • Mental health problems (eg, depression, anxiety, attempted suicide) c64c65c66
    • Gastrointestinal issues (eg, gastritis with dyspepsia, nausea, bloating) c67c68c69
    • Neurologic problems (eg, gait instability, peripheral neuropathy) c70c71
    • Reproductive health issues (eg, recurrent sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancy, erectile dysfunction, menstrual irregularity) c72c73c74c75
    • Sleep problems (eg, insomnia, sleep apnea) c76c77

Physical examination

  • Initially, patients may present with findings secondary to complications related to alcohol use disorder
    • Elevated blood pressure and/or tachycardia c78c79
    • Hepatomegaly, which may indicate alcohol-induced liver disease c80
    • Epigastric abdominal tenderness, which may indicate pancreatitis or gastritis c81c82
    • Decreased testicular size and feminization in men, associated with reduced testosterone levels c83c84
    • Evidence of unexplained trauma c85
  • Patients may present with characteristic signs of alcohol withdrawal syndrome
    • Unsteady gait c86
    • Fine action tremor c87
    • Seizures
    • Mild peripheral edema c88
    • Restlessness c89
    • Tachycardia or hypertension c90c91
  • Patients may present with signs of intoxication
    • Ataxia c92
    • Nystagmus c93
    • Slurred speech c94
    • Inappropriate affect c95

Causes and Risk Factors


  • A combination of genetic, physiologic, and environmental factors r11c96c97c98

Risk factors and/or associations

  • Past year prevalence estimates in the United States for alcohol use disorder:
    • About 5% for 12- to 17-year-old patients r11c99
    • Overall, about 8.5% to 14% for adults aged 18 years and older r8r11
      • Prevalence is highest among young adults aged 18 to 29 years (about 16%), decreases among middle aged patients, and is lowest among patients aged 65 years and older (about 1.5%) c100c101c102
  • Past year prevalence estimates in the United States for alcohol use disorder are higher among men (12.4%) than women (4.9%) r11c103c104
  • Women who drink heavily are more susceptible to some physical peripheral organ consequences (eg, liver disease) than men r15
    • Higher fat content and differences in total alcohol dehydrogenase levels in women increase organ damage
  • Family history of alcohol use disorder is a strong risk factor for development of disease r16c105
    • Disease is often familial; genetic influences account for approximately 40% to 60% of risk variance r11r17r18
    • Risk of disease is 3- to 4-fold higher in close relatives of patients with disease r11
      • Highest risk occurs in patients with: r11
        • Greater number of affected relatives
        • Closer genetic relationship with affected relatives
        • Higher severity of disorder in affected relatives
  • Details regarding specific genetic influences are evolving; some known phenotypes influenced by a number of genetic variations impart lower or higher risk for disease r11
    • Lower risk phenotypes
      • Altered function of aldehyde dehydrogenase
        • Acute alcohol-related skin flush phenomenon
          • ALDH2*2 single nucleotide polymorphism rs671 (Glu504Lys) leads to diminished activity of aldehyde dehydrogenase and impaired alcohol metabolism r6r18
          • Carriers of ALDH2*2 allele develop a disulfiramlike reaction (skin flushing, diaphoresis, tachycardia, nausea, vomiting, headache, palpitations) after consuming alcohol r16
          • Symptoms may lead to diminished future alcohol consumption, thereby protecting against development of alcohol use disorder
          • Usually noted in Asian patients and is rare in Europeans r16
      • Altered function of alcohol dehydrogenase
        • ADH1B*2single nucleotide polymorphism rs1229984 (Arg48His) leads to a fast rate of alcohol metabolism r18
        • Usually noted in Asian patients and leads to protective effect for development of alcohol use disorder r18
    • Higher vulnerability phenotypes
      • Preexisting schizophrenia or bipolar disorder c106c107
      • Low-level sensitivity (low-level response) to alcohol c108
  • Genetic variations and clinical response to certain medication
    • Single nucleotide polymorphism variant in exon 1 (Asn40Asp) in OPRM1 (μ-opioid receptor gene) is associated with greater positive reinforcing effects of alcohol consumption and greater alcohol craving, in addition to improved clinical response to naltrexone r4r19c109
    • Allele is more prevalent in white and Asian populations r6
  • Among 12- to 17-year-old patients in the United States, listed in order of most to least prevalent: r11
    • Hispanic (about 6% past year prevalence) c110
    • Native American and Alaskan Native c111c112
    • White c113
    • African American c114
    • Asian American and Pacific Islander (about 1.6%) c115c116
  • Among adults, in order of most to least prevalent: r11
    • Native American and Alaskan Native (about 12% past year prevalence) c117c118
    • White c119
    • Hispanic and African American c120c121
    • Asian American and Pacific Islander (about 4.5%) c122c123
Other risk factors/associations
  • Increased risk of developing disease is associated with:
    • Earlier onset of first alcohol use and/or intoxication r16r18c124c125
    • Increased frequency of binge drinking r5r16c126
    • Higher number of years of heavy drinking and number of drinks per day r18c127c128
    • Accepting cultural attitudes toward drinking and intoxication r11c129
    • Easy availability of alcohol r11c130
    • Low self-control and impulsivity r16c131c132
    • Increased stress levels and suboptimal methods of coping with stress r11c133c134
    • Positive personal experiences with alcohol use and exaggerated positive expectations of alcohol effects r11c135
    • Association with peers who use alcohol and other mood-altering substances r11r16c136
    • Childhood conduct and mood disorders r16c137c138
    • Childhood and adolescent stressors (eg, verbal, physical, sexual abuse) and household instability (eg, parent or intimate partner violence, parental psychiatric illness and substance use, household member incarceration) r5r18c139c140c141c142c143c144c145c146
    • Low parental monitoring and poor family support r16c147c148
  • Additional associations include:
    • High rates of other concomitant mental health disorders such as another substance use disorder, depression and mood disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder r7c149c150c151c152c153
      • Up to 50% of patients with a lifetime history of alcohol use disorder have a least 1 other mental health disorder r16c154
      • Most patients have an additional substance use disorder: at least one-half smoke tobacco and one-third have another drug use disorder r16c155
      • Conduct disorder and antisocial behavior often co-occur in adolescents with alcohol use disorder r11c156c157
    • High rates of challenging psychosocial issues such as intimate partner violence, unstable housing, and poverty r7c158c159c160
    • High rates of concomitant chronic diseases c161
    • Marital status is associated with rate of alcohol use disorder: r5
      • Never married: highest association c162
      • Separated, divorced, or widowed: second highest association c163c164c165
      • Married or cohabitating: lowest association c166c167
    • Higher levels of impulsivity are associated with more severe and earlier onset of disease r11
    • Rates may be higher in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations r20c168c169c170

Diagnostic Procedures

Primary diagnostic tools

  • Suspect diagnosis based on clinical presentation or positive response to screening tool c171
  • Conduct secondary assessments to confirm screening results, determine type of unhealthy alcohol use (eg, risky drinking, alcohol use disorder), establish baseline behavior, and identify particular concerns for further discussion during treatment phase r2
    • May use a second tier screening tool (eg, AUDIT full version [Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test]) to follow initial positive first tier screen (eg, single question, AUDIT-C [Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test–Consumption]). AUDIT score can then help guide further assessment and subsequent plan r2
    • Alternately, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's checklist may help guide further assessment with a systematic evaluation for maladaptive patterns of alcohol resulting in clinically significant impairment or distress r21r22
  • Confirm alcohol use disorder with a diagnostic interview to establish DSM-5 criteria r11
  • Baseline and adjunct studies obtained at time of diagnosis are nondiagnostic but may confirm heavy drinking and identify alcohol-related peripheral organ damage; tests to consider include: r23
    • Baseline renal function testing, serum glucose level, liver function testing, and CBC on all patients to assess for potential alcohol-related complications r7r16
    • Pregnancy test in women of childbearing years r23
    • Some sources recommend urine toxicology screen to assess for other substances that may affect treatment approach r23
    • Adjunct tests and findings that may be helpful during evaluation include:
      • Blood alcohol concentration may help in assessing tolerance and recent alcohol consumption r11
      • γ-glutamyltransferase and carbohydrate-deficient transferrin levels may be elevated in heavy drinkers; both tests combined improve test characteristics (sensitivity/specificity) compared with either test alone r24
        • Although combining tests is the most useful, carbohydrate-deficient transferrin is more expensive, so many use γ-glutamyltransferase alone
      • Other test results that may be altered in heavy drinkers include: r11
        • Elevated triglyceride and HDL-C levels
        • High reference range levels of uric acid
        • Elevated mean corpuscular volume
      • Testing for breath or blood alcohol concentration and alcohol metabolites (eg, ethyl glucuronide, phosphatidylethanol) may be useful in certain monitoring scenarios r23


  • Liver function testing c172
    • Liver function testing can identify consequences of liver injury secondary to heavy drinking r11
    • AST level is characteristically elevated more than ALT level in patients with alcohol-related hepatocyte damage r7
    • AST to ALT ratio greater than 2 raises the possibility of alcoholic hepatitis, particularly when each enzyme level is lower than about 400 units/L r1
    • Use of certain drugs (eg, naltrexone, disulfiram) is cautioned in patients with liver disease r23
    • AST and ALT elevations usually normalize about 4 weeks after cessation of drinking r16
  • γ-glutamyltransferase c173
    • Modest elevation or high reference range levels (more than 35 units) are consistent with persistent heavy drinking (8 or more drinks daily on a regular basis) r11
    • Levels return toward reference range within days to weeks of abstinence from drinking r11
    • Sensitivity and specificity to identify heavy drinking overall is poor; detects about 20% of heavy drinkers r16
  • Renal function testing c174
    • Baseline renal function testing can help direct appropriate choice of pharmacotherapy r23
    • Use of certain drugs (eg, naltrexone, acamprosate) is cautioned in patients with impaired renal function r23
  • Mean corpuscular volume c175
    • Macrocytosis with elevated or high reference range mean corpuscular volume values may be present in heavy drinkers secondary to direct toxic effects of alcohol on bone marrow erythropoiesis r11
    • Elevations may persist in times of abstinence for up to 3 months owing to long half-life of erythrocytes r16
  • Blood alcohol concentration c176
    • Most individuals without tolerance will demonstrate severe signs of intoxication with levels at 200 mg/dL or more r11
    • Some degree of tolerance likely exists when blood alcohol concentration exceeds 150 mg/dL without signs of intoxication r11
    • Blood or breath alcohol concentration may be a helpful measured parameter to monitor for abstinence r16
  • Carbohydrate-deficient transferrin c177
    • Levels of 20 units or higher are consistent with persistent heavy drinking (8 or more drinks daily on a regular basis) r11
    • Levels return toward reference range within days to weeks of abstinence from drinking r11
    • Sensitivity is moderate and specificity is high for detection of high-risk drinking; may be helpful parameter to identify heavy drinking r16
    • Testing is not widely available and usually is performed in specialized laboratories r16
  • Alcohol metabolites
    • Ethyl glucuronide r24c178
      • Urine is the most widely used sample for testing
      • Test is highly sensitive; false positives are not infrequent because even trace amounts of alcohol exposure (eg, in cosmetics) can result in positive test r23
      • False positives can occur from other conditions (eg, bacterial hydrolysis from Escherichia coli causing a urinary tract infection)
      • Time for levels to normalize after alcohol consumption is about 2 days r16
      • Measured parameter may be helpful to monitor for abstinence r16
      • Testing is not widely available and usually is performed in specialized laboratories r16
    • Ethyl sulfate r24c179
      • Ethyl sulfate and ethyl glucuronide are both products of ethanol metabolism and levels are often measured together in the urine to detect recent ethanol use
      • Unlike ethyl glucuronide, ethyl sulfate occurs in the urine only as a result of alcohol consumption
    • Phosphatidyl ethanol c180
      • Blood is the most widely used sample for testing
      • Sensitive and specific marker to detect chronic drinking (eg, 3 or more drinks a day for 1-2 weeks); may be helpful parameter to identify heavy drinking r16r23
      • Marker may be detected for 2 to 4 weeks in blood after drinking has stopped r23
      • Testing is not widely available and usually is performed in specialized laboratories r16
  • Common biologic markers of alcohol use.Test characteristics (sensitivity/specificity) apply to usefulness for detection of high risk drinking.Adapted from Connor JP et al: Alcohol use disorders. Lancet. 387(10022):988-98, 2016, Table 2.
    TestMonitor abstinenceIdentify high-risk drinkingTime to normalizeSensitivitySpecificity
    Breath or blood alcohol concentrationYesNoHoursLowHigh
    γ-glutamyltransferaseNoYesUp to 4 weeksLowModerate
    RBC mean corpuscular volumeNoYes3 monthsLowModerate
    ASTNoYes4 weeksLowLow
    Carbohydrate-deficient transferrinNoYes4 weeksModerateHigh
    Ethyl glucuronideYesNo2 daysHighHigh
    Phosphatidyl ethanolNoYes4 weeksHighHigh
    Ethyl sulfideYesNo2 daysHighHigh

Other diagnostic tools

  • DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder r11c181
    • Diagnosis of alcohol use disorder may be assigned based on meeting at least 2 of the following 11 symptom criteria occurring within a 12-month period
    • Symptom criteria include: r11
      • Alcohol consumed in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended
      • Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use
      • Much time spent in activities necessary to obtain, use, or recover from effects of alcohol
      • Craving, strong desire, or urge to use alcohol
      • Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home
      • Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by effects of alcohol
      • Important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced owing to alcohol use
      • Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous
      • Continued alcohol use despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol
      • Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
        • Need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect
        • Markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol
      • Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
        • Characteristic signs of alcohol withdrawal syndrome
        • Consuming alcohol or a closely related substance (eg, a benzodiazepine) to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms
    • Specifiers r11
      • Severity
        • Mild: presence of 2 to 3 DSM-5 symptom criteria
        • Moderate: presence of 4 to 5 DSM-5 symptom criteria
        • Severe: presence of 6 or more DSM-5 symptom criteria
      • Remission status
        • Early remission
          • None of the criteria previously met for alcohol use disorder are present for at least 3 months but less than 12 months (except for craving phenomenon, which may still be present)
        • Sustained remission
          • None of the criteria previously met for alcohol use disorder are present at any time for a period of 12 months or longer (except for craving phenomenon, which may still be present)
      • Presence in a controlled environment
        • Specify if patient is in a controlled environment (eg, locked hospital unit, therapeutic community, correctional facility) where access to alcohol is restricted

Differential Diagnosis

Most common

  • Nonpathologic use of alcohol c182
    • Similar presentation, with repeated (sometimes daily) and occasionally heavy use of alcohol in quantities sufficient to cause intoxication r11
    • As opposed to patients with alcohol use disorder, use does not result in repeated and significant distress or impaired functioning in these people r11
    • Differentiate clinically with DSM-5 criteria
  • Sedative, anxiolytic, or hypnotic use disorder c183c184
    • Presenting signs and symptoms are nearly identical to manifestations of alcohol use disorder
    • Concurrent use of sedative, anxiolytic, or hypnotic medications is not uncommon in patients with alcohol use disorder
    • As opposed to alcohol use disorder, mild decrease in autonomic system functioning (eg, bradycardia, hypotension) is more characteristic of sedative, anxiolytic, or hypnotic use
    • Differentiation can be difficult and disorders may be comorbid. Clinical history, urine drug testing, and application of DSM-5 criteria can aid in differentiation
  • Depressive and anxiety disorders c185c186d2
    • May present similar to alcohol use disorder with mood changes in conjunction with heavy or frequent alcohol use d3
    • People with mental health conditions may self-medicate with alcohol in effort to blunt severity of psychiatric symptom manifestations d4
    • Alcohol-induced depression and anxiety are common in patients with active alcohol use disorder and initially can complicate the differentiation process d5
    • True comorbid psychiatric illnesses, rather than alcohol-induced effects, are often noted before onset of heavy alcohol use and persist after recovery from alcohol use disorder is achieved r7
    • Diagnosis of comorbid depressive and anxiety disorders may require a period of abstinence to determine whether manifestations are secondary to alcohol-induced effects, primary mental health issue, or both
    • Diagnoses are based on DSM-5 criteria



  • Start individualized treatment approach with goal of abstinence from alcohol consumption
  • Reduce or eliminate complications associated with the disorder, and improve or restore health and social well-being of patient
  • Monitor and provide follow-up in effort to prevent relapse


Admission criteria

Admit patients with moderate to severe withdrawal and those who are at risk for severe withdrawal (eg, history of severe withdrawal, withdrawal seizures) for inpatient detoxificationr7d1

Admit patients with significant medical or psychiatric comorbidity, patients who lack social support, and patients who are pregnant for further evaluation and management r7

Admit patients at risk for suicide for further evaluation and treatment

Admit any heavily intoxicated patients who cannot be cleared in the emergency department after period of observation for airway protection, hydration, seizure precautions, and monitoring for glucose abnormalities, ketoacidosis, potential trauma, and development of withdrawal r16

Patients with serious health consequences related to alcohol use (eg, significant trauma, cardiac complications, liver failure, pancreatitis, pneumonia) may require admission for further diagnostic and management considerations

Criteria for ICU admission
  • Alcohol use disorder does not generally require ICU level of care; however, patients with severe withdrawal manifestations or complications related to extreme intoxication may require ICU admission d1

Recommendations for specialist referral

  • Consider evaluation and treatment in consultation with an addiction medicine specialist for patients at risk for severe withdrawal course, moderate to severe alcohol use disorder, and inability to maintain sobriety secondary to frequent relapse
  • Psychiatric evaluation is required for patients at risk for suicide (eg, ideations with plan, ideations with past attempt) and patients with likely psychiatric comorbidity
  • Pregnant patients require care in consultation with high-risk obstetrician and may require evaluation and management by an addiction medicine specialist
  • Consider evaluation and treatment in consultation with an adolescent addiction medicine clinician for adolescent patients
  • Consult appropriate specialist for patients presenting with serious health consequences related to alcohol use (eg, gastroenterologist for liver failure, cardiologist for cardiomyopathy)

Treatment Options

Treatment of alcohol use disorder

  • Brief behavioral intervention is the initial step to define and formulate a treatment plan. Indicated for all patients with unhealthy alcohol user16
    • Variations in content and intensity of intervention exist. Most interventions involve 1 to 3 sessions lasting 5- to 20-minutes to educate regarding safe consumption levels, set drinking goals, and provide strategies to lower intake r16
    • Clinical approach protocol is available on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website r25
    • Intervention can be effective in reducing hazardous drinking and in encouraging patients with alcohol use disorder to engage in treatment r16
  • Several treatment options are available; no single approach has proven superior to another r2r26
    • Medically managed withdrawal and detoxification when indicated r2d1
    • Most treatment is currently delivered in specialty settings; however, treatment is increasingly available and effective from a primary care setting. Treatment via primary care generally requires coordination with behavioral/mental health services r2
    • Options for treatment settings include inpatient care, residential treatment, intensive outpatient programs, and outpatient care r2
      • Structured residential treatment in a therapeutic community or rehabilitation program may be required for patients with greater challenges (eg, more severe alcohol use disorder, little social support, unstable living conditions) and those who are unresponsive to outpatient treatment
    • Aftercare program is often a valuable adjunct to follow inpatient, residential, and intensive outpatient programs r2
  • Various treatment modalities are complementary; no single approach is universally successful or appeals to all patients
    • Ultimate treatment target of sustained abstinence from alcohol consumption is associated with best overall outcomes r2r4r13r16r27r28
    • Important overarching principle of treatment is to engage patient in 1 or more psychological and/or pharmacologic treatment approaches rather than advocate for a specific treatment r16
    • Most commonly recommended treatment is multimodal; ideal approach includes an individualized combination of psychiatric and/or psychosocial rehabilitation and pharmacotherapy r4
      • Common psychological and psychosocial treatment approaches include:
        • Mutual help groups
          • Used to address the psychosocial aspect of alcohol use disorder r29
        • Brief counseling sessions
          • Used to affect behavior: encourage abstinence, adherence to medication regimen, and participation in mutual help groups r23
        • Intensive psychological counseling
          • Used to address psychological aspects of alcohol use disorder; required particularly in those with co-occurring mental health disorders r27
      • Pharmacotherapy
        • Used to address the neurobiologic aspect of alcohol use disorder r27
        • Medications are usually recommended after successful cessation of alcohol use to improve ability to maintain abstinence and to enhance intensive psychological counseling r2
          • Best outcomes for patients prescribed medications occur in those who are able to abstain from consuming alcohol (even for a few days) before starting pharmacotherapy r27
        • Indications for pharmacotherapy
          • Consider for all patients with active alcohol use disorder r4r27
            • Patients with mild disease may benefit from pharmacotherapy, but data are limited r5
          • Moderate to severe alcohol use disorder r30
            • Naltrexone or acamprosate is first line therapy. Goal is to reduce consumption or achieve abstinence r31
            • Disulfiram is for patients who prefer it or are intolerant of or unresponsive to the first line medications. Goal is to achieve abstinence
            • Gabapentin is for patients who prefer it or are intolerant of or unresponsive to other approved medications. Goal is to reduce consumption or achieve abstinence r32
            • Topiramate can be used, but it has more adverse events than the other choices
          • Patient who has discontinued drinking in the past few months but continues to experience intense cravings, lapses, or relapses r27
          • Patient who fails to respond to nonpharmacologic treatments approaches alone r27
        • Pharmacotherapy options
          • Approved medications include disulfiram, acamprosate, and naltrexone (oral and long-acting intramuscular injection) r2
            • Oral naltrexone and acamprosate appear similarly effective for lapse (return to any drinking) prevention and for reduction of drinking days when compared with placebo r16r28
            • Oral naltrexone appears effective for relapse (return to heavy drinking) prevention compared with placebo r28
            • Number needed to treat ranges from 9 to 20 for lapse and relapse prevention r16r28
          • Nonapproved medications with some proven efficacy include topiramater2 and gabapentin
            • Data supporting topiramate yield small to moderate effect size in promoting abstinence and reducing heavy drinking compared with placebo r4
            • Limited data indicate substantial effect size in promoting abstinence and reducing heavy drinking compared with placebo r4
        • Duration of pharmacotherapy
          • Optimal duration is not firmly established r4r27
          • 3 to 6 months minimum is recommended r5r27
          • Treatment continued for 1 year or more is often employed given that risk of relapse is highest in the first year of abstinence r23r27
          • Patients may require multiple episodes of pharmacotherapy or indefinite pharmacotherapy r5r23
        • Choice of medication
          • Data do not support 1 standardized approach to help guide initiation of 1 medication as opposed to another r27
            • Initial medication choice depends on individual treatment goals, presence or absence of comorbidity, medication adherence considerations, and other historical factors r4
            • Common considerations include:
              • Disulfiram may be helpful in a clinical scenario involving a highly motivated patient with goal of complete abstinence r4
              • Naltrexone is not preferred for patients with chronic pain syndromes who may require opioids r4
              • Naltrexone may be preferred in patients with concomitant opioid use disorder, intense cravings, or family history of alcohol use disorder r23
              • Advanced liver disease may limit use of naltrexone r4
              • Advanced renal disease may limit use of acamprosate
              • Consider using topiramate for patients with preexisting seizure disorder and gabapentin for patients with preexisting neuropathy r4
          • Consider trial of alternate medication if patient does not respond to first choice of medication r27
          • No current data support increased efficacy of combination pharmacotherapy; however, data are limited r4r27
        • Comprehensive resource—Medication for the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder: A Brief Guide—is available from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration r23
  • Most experts suggest administering a multivitamin containing thiamine, folic acid, and pyridoxine
  • Multiple treatment resources are listed in Appendix B of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration publication, Medication for the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder: A Brief Guider23
  • Address comorbid psychiatric illnesses, substance use disorders, and behavioral disorders r33
  • Avoid using antidepressants to treat alcohol use disorder unless evidence exists of a co-occurring disorder for which an antidepressant is indicated (eg, anxiety disorder) r30
  • Avoid using benzodiazepines, except to treat alcohol withdrawal

Treatment of risky drinking behavior without alcohol use disorder

  • Preferred treatment approach is brief alcohol counseling intervention in the primary care setting with the goal of reducing harm by reducing alcohol consumption r2r34

Drug therapy

  • Naltrexone (oral and long-acting intramuscular injection) c187c188
    • Contraindications
      • Acute hepatitis or liver failure;r2however, drug is safe in patients with mild to moderate liver disease (up to Child-Pugh Class B cirrhosis or transaminases less than 5 times upper limit of reference range)r4
      • Patients taking opioids or opioid agonists such as buprenorphine (drug precipitates opioid withdrawal) or anticipated need for opioids (drug blocks effects of opioids) r2r3
        • Opioid abstinence for several days to a week (about 5 times half-life of opioid taken) is recommended before starting naltrexone r4r23
    • Use with caution in patients with moderate to severe renal impairment r23
    • Most data support best efficacy in patients not currently drinking alcohol (number needed to treat is 12 to prevent return to heavy drinking compared with placebo) r4
    • Predictors of positive therapeutic response to naltrexone may include positive family history for alcohol use disorder and strong cravings for alcohol r35
    • Oral dosage
      • Naltrexone Hydrochloride Oral tablet; Adults: 50 mg PO once daily with food for 12 weeks. Other regimens include 50 mg PO once daily on weekdays and 100 mg PO on Saturdays; 100 mg PO every other day; or 150 mg PO every third day. Some patients may require 100 mg/day PO. Initially, patients may require 3 to 6 months of treatment. Certain patients may benefit from up to 1 year of treatment. Titrate dose from 12.5 mg to 25 mg PO once daily to minimize GI upset; gradually titrate the dose, split the daily dose, or adjust the administration times.
    • Intramuscular injection dosage
      • Naltrexone Suspension for injection, Extended Release; Adults: 380 mg IM every 4 weeks. Use is indicated in patients who are able to abstain from alcohol in an outpatient setting prior to treatment initiation. Patients should not be actively drinking alcohol at the time of initial naltrexone IM administration.
  • Acamprosate c189
    • Precaution: dose reduction required for patients with moderate renal impairment (use 333 mg dose PO 3 times a day) and low body weight (less than 65 kgr16) r2r23
    • Contraindicated in patients with severe renal impairment r2r3
    • Safe to use in patients with mild to moderate liver disease (Child-Pugh class A or B cirrhosis) r4
    • May be most effective in patients not currently drinking alcohol; effective for both maintaining abstinence and reducing heavy drinking days (number needed to treat is 12 to prevent return to drinking compared with placebo) r4
    • Acamprosate Calcium Gastro-resistant tablet; Adults: 666 mg PO three times per day. Initiate treatment as soon as possible after the period of alcohol withdrawal, when abstinence is achieved, and maintain treatment even if the patient relapses. Lower doses may be effective in some patients. Efficacy in promoting abstinence has not been demonstrated in patients who have not undergone detoxification or achieved alcohol abstinence; therefore, acamprosate is indicated only in patients who are abstinent at the time of treatment initiation. Acamprosate should be used as a part of a comprehensive program that includes psychosocial support and treatment.
  • Disulfiram c190
    • Precautions: causes symptoms with alcohol exposure (eg, flushing, headache, nausea and vomiting, diaphoresis, lightheadedness); may cause medically dangerous symptoms with significant alcohol exposure (eg, hemodynamic instability) r2r4
      • Avoid using other products with potential for significant alcohol absorption (eg, alcohol-based shaving creams, mouthwash, cough syrup) r4
    • There is potential for drug interactions with disulfiram use (eg, benzodiazepines, isoniazid, rifampin, metronidazole, warfarin, oral hypoglycemics, phenytoin, theophylline) r23
    • Contraindicated in patients who plan to continue consuming alcohol; have severe cardiac disease, psychosis, or cognitive dysfunction; are pregnant or breastfeeding; or are highly impulsive r3r30r33
      • Cardiac function assessment may be indicated before initiating treatment with disulfiram, depending on patient's history r30
    • Effectiveness is improved when patient dosage is monitored. Best reserved for highly motivated patients and patients with significant external pressure to maintain sobriety with goal of abstinence r4r27
    • First dose may be given after 12 hours of confirmed alcohol cessation r2r4r23
    • Disulfiram Oral tablet; Adults: 500 mg PO once daily every morning for 1 to 2 weeks, then reduce to 250 mg PO once daily. The dose may be taken in the evening if drowsiness occurs. Recommended maintenance dosage range: 125 mg to 500 mg PO once daily. Max: 500 mg/day PO.
  • Topiramate c191c192
    • Consider for patients with comorbid seizure disorder r4
    • Precaution: titrate dose escalation more slowly and diminish total daily dose by 50% in patients with creatinine clearance of less than 70 mL/min; taper is required when medication is discontinued r4
    • Initiate with gradual dose escalation over 4 weeks r4
    • Topiramate Oral tablet; Adults: Use not FDA-approved, but has been studied. Initially, 25 mg/day PO (usually given at bedtime), then titrate slowly. Max: 300 mg/day PO in divided doses.
  • Gabapentin c193c194
    • Consider for patients with comorbid neuropathy r4
    • Precaution: potential for drug misuse may be a concern given recent accounts of gabapentin overdose, addiction, and diversion r4
    • Gabapentin Oral tablet; Adults: Use not FDA-approved, but has been studied. Initially, 300 mg PO at bedtime on day 1; then 300 mg PO twice daily on day 2; then 300 mg PO 3 times per day on Day 3; and then titrated upward over days 4 to 7 to reach final dosage. Doses from 600 mg/day to 1,800 mg/day PO have improved abstinence rates and relapse-related symptoms (i.e., insomnia, dysphoria, craving) in some patients.

Nondrug and supportive care

Alcohol use disorder

  • Brief intervention defines problem and formulates treatment plan; steps for initial brief intervention:
    • Clearly state diagnosis r25
    • Negotiate a realistic drinking goal with abstinence being the safest option r25
    • Recommend treatment plan, which involves counseling and/or medication with or without medically assisted withdrawal management r25
    • Motivate patient to engage in decision making about medication and treatment plan r16
  • Abstinence is the ultimate goal for optimal outcome r27c195
    • Abstinence is not the initial expressed goal of many patients r4r16
      • When a patient with alcohol use disorder initially is unwilling to commit to abstinence, best approach is to set the goal of reducing drinking, while continuing to reinforce that a goal of abstinence has best outcome r27
      • Alternate outcome goals, at least initially, can include reducing cravings, quantity consumed, and number of heavy drinking days r4
      • Need for abstinence is suggested by failure to control drinking r16
    • Some slightly different initial approach models for patients unable to or unwilling to abstain: r2
      • Shared decision-making model c196
        • Support patient as preferences, values, and goals are clarified
      • Harm reduction model c197
        • Controversial approach involves main treatment goal of reducing heavy drinking (controlled drinking) rather than complete abstinence
    • Provide suggestions for strategies to help maintain abstinence and cope with urge obsessions r33c198
  • Psychiatric and psychosocial rehabilitation
    • Modalities
      • Intensive counseling programs
        • May occur in a variety of settings (eg, inpatient, outpatient) and with a number of approaches (eg, individual, group) r2c199c200c201c202c203
        • Most commonly recommended techniques include motivational enhancement therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy r2c204c205
      • Brief counseling sessions
        • May occur in primary care setting; motivational interviewing technique is often employed r34
        • Weekly or biweekly, brief (15-20 minutes), and may be effective when combined with medication use r23
      • Mutual help groups
        • Mutual help groups can help maintain long-term sobriety and improve quality of life in patients who attend regularly and actively participate in discussion r23r33
        • Most commonly recommended programs include 12-step–based programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous; meetings can be located through the Alcoholics Anonymous websiter36 and local resources r2r36c206c207
        • SMART Recoveryr37 (Self-Management and Recovery Training) is an alternative for patients who reject the spiritual recovery angle offered by most Alcoholics Anonymous programs r16c208
    • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locatorr38 to help find addiction and mental health services throughout the United States
  • Relapse prevention c209
    • Involves frequent monitoring and follow-up
    • Goals include maintaining high motivation and accountability for treatment, promoting and maintaining positive attitudes toward recovery, and diminishing risk for relapse r1
  • Adjustments to treatment plan
    • Depend on patient progress, specific pitfalls encountered (eg, problems adhering to treatment plan, medication tolerance), and evolving treatment goals
    • In the event of relapse, consider the following treatment options r23
      • Assess and address social, medical, or behavioral factors that contribute to patient’s alcohol consumption
      • Increase monitoring
      • Adjust medication dose
      • Increase or change intensity of psychosocial services
      • Refer patient for specialty care to addiction medicine specialist, if not already done

Treatment of risky drinking behavior without alcohol use disorder

  • Behavioral counseling interventions may reduce or eliminate behavior r2
  • Data support brief (5-15 minutes) multicontact (2 or more) intervention as the most effective approach r2
    • Clinical approach protocol is available on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website, and structured questions are available r8r25r39
    • Key components of brief intervention include raising subject, providing feedback, enhancing motivation, negotiating, and advising r39
  • Effective counseling techniques use motivational interviewing, advising, feedback, alcohol consumption diaries, self-help materials, and problem-solving exercises r2
    • Motivational interviewing techniques are particularly promising and are designed to guide and facilitate behavioral changes
      • Focus is to elicit patient motivation for change and to aid exploration and resolution of ambivalence
      • Techniques used include reflective listening, open-ended questions, elicit-provide-elicit strategy, asking permission, importance exercises, and confidence exercises. Uses REDS strategy (roll with resistance, express empathy, develop discrepancy, support self-efficacy)
    • Advice regarding strategies to reduce alcohol intake in patients with risky drinking behavior is available r33
  • Follow-up to review alcohol intake and continue support at each patient visit


  • Psychiatric illnesses and behavioral disorders
    • Mental health conditions (eg, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, conduct disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, substance use disorders, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder) are observed with increased frequency in patients with alcohol use disorder c211c212c213c214c215c216c217c218c219
    • Integrated treatment is the most effective and preferred treatment method; assumes that each disorder is primary and requires simultaneous care r23
    • Primary caregiver can be most effective coordinating and streamlining care through specialists (eg, psychiatrists, addiction medicine specialists) r23
    • Both naltrexone and acamprosate may be used in combination with psychiatric medications; disulfiram is contraindicated in the presence of psychosis and may increase tricyclic antidepressant and long-acting hepatically metabolized benzodiazepine levels r23
    • Treatment of depression is individualized given that substance-induced depression and comorbid chronic depression may be difficult to differentiate r23
      • Consider antidepressant when
        • Symptoms limit recovery potential and there are limited or no contraindications (eg, history of mania or hypomania) r23
        • Depressed mood does not improve or resolve with reduction in heavy alcohol use or abstinence r5
  • Renal impairment r30c220
    • Severe renal impairment: acamprosate is contraindicated
    • Mild to moderate renal impairment: acamprosate should not be used as first line treatment
  • Acute hepatitis or hepatic failure r30c221c222
    • Naltrexone is contraindicated
  • Anticipated need for opioids or other opioid requirement r30
    • Naltrexone is contraindicated
  • Co-occurring opioid use disorder r30c223c224
    • Naltrexone is indicated for patients (whose goal is abstinence from both opioids and alcohol) who are able to abstain from opioid use for a clinically appropriate time before starting naltrexone
  • HIV r39c225
    • Ineffective treatment of alcohol use disorder can adversely affect HIV treatment secondary to suboptimal antiretroviral therapy adherence
    • Intramuscular dosing of naltrexone may be preferred to ensure administration and diminish pill burden in patients opting for pharmacotherapy

Special populations

  • Pregnant women
    • 11.5% of pregnant women report drinking alcohol and 3.9% report binge drinking in the past 30 days, according to data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System obtained between 2015 and 2017 r40
    • Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is associated with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders including birth defects involving the central nervous system, behavioral disorders, and impaired intellectual development
      • May also be a risk factor for other adverse pregnancy outcomes such as miscarriage and stillbirth r40
    • Strict abstinence from alcohol consumption is the primary goal for pregnant women and women trying to conceive; no amount of alcohol is known to be safe for developing fetus r23
    • Screening questions and tools require incorporation of assessment for any alcohol use during pregnancy; several adapted screening tools are validated for use in pregnant women
    • Manage patients in consultation with an addiction medicine specialist and/or obstetrician specializing in high-risk pregnancy r23
    • Medication use in pregnant women is controversial; none of the medications approved for treatment of alcohol use disorder have been definitively shown to be safe for pregnant or nursing women r23r41
      • Medications should be used only when probable benefits outweigh potential risks r23
      • The American Psychiatric Association, the International Task Force of the World Federation of Societies of Biological Psychiatry, and the International Association for Women's Mental Health recommend against use of medications (other than benzodiazepines) to treat alcohol withdrawal in pregnant and breastfeeding women r30r42
      • Disulfiram is contraindicated in pregnancy r23
      • Low doses of benzodiazepines used for the shortest duration may be used to prevent alcohol withdrawal symptoms if high chronic alcohol intake is ceased (hospitalization is recommended in this scenario) r42
    • Assess newborns for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and measure alcohol metabolites in meconium if fetal alcohol exposure is suspected r42
  • Adolescents and young adults
    • None of the available medications are approved for use in patients younger than 18 years with alcohol use disorder r23r41
    • Ideally, refer patients to a clinician or program specializing in adolescent addiction for treatment planning r23
    • In practice, because medications have no specific contraindications in this population, judicious use of medication may be necessary when psychosocial interventions alone are not effective or when there is evidence of moderate to severe alcohol use disorder r23
    • Specific screening questions and tools are useful in adolescents; several adapted screening tools are validated for use in this population
  • Older adults
    • Several diagnostic challenges exist in this age group. Accurate diagnosis may be difficult owing to: r23
      • Pronounced patient and family member shame, denial, and minimization regarding disorder
      • Misdiagnosis of alcohol use disorder as another condition common in this age group (eg, depression, dementia)
    • Treating with medications must be done carefully because there is increased likelihood of concomitant comorbidity and diminished renal clearance of medications r23
      • Acamprosate may require dose reductions and frequent renal function tests
      • Disulfiram requires dose reduction; maintain care when prescribing to patients taking multiple medications because potential exists for multiple drug interactions with disulfiram


  • Follow-up monitoring and continued support are ongoing
    • Follow-up frequency is individualized
      • Office visits usually are scheduled weekly during initial phases of treatment then monthly when recovery process is more stabilized r39c226c227
    • Approach depends on patient's ability to meet and maintain drinking goals r25
      • Patient who is unable to meet and maintain drinking goals
        • Acknowledge that change can be difficult and support patient efforts to diminish consumption
        • Relate drinking to medical and psychosocial problems; in other words, suggest that the patient's medical and psychosocial problems are exacerbated or caused by, not solved by, alcohol use
        • Consider the following measures if they are not already in place
          • Refer to addiction medicine specialist for further recommendations and management c228
          • Recommend additional counseling (eg, add another form of counseling, increase frequency of mutual help group) c229
          • Engage family and/or significant other in treatment plan c230
          • Prescribe or change medication c231
        • Address coexisting medical and psychiatric disorders as needed
      • Patient who is meeting and maintaining drinking goals
        • Reinforce and support continued adherence to treatment plan c232c233
        • Coordinate care with addiction medicine specialist when applicable c234
        • Review medication plan c235
        • Treat coexisting nicotine dependence r43c236
        • Address coexisting medical and psychiatric disorders as needed
    • Standardized progress notes are available on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website r27
    • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has resources to help with monitoring health status and social functioning r23
    • Monitoring parameters depend on initial findings and patient progress, and may include: r23
      • Laboratory tests such as AST, γ-glutamyltransferase, carbohydrate-deficient transferrin, blood or breath alcohol, alcohol metabolites, and urine drug screens c237c238c239c240c241c242
      • Standardized questionnaires (eg, Alcohol Urge Questionnaire) r44c243
      • Prescription refill monitoring through pharmacy or state prescription monitoring program c244
      • Periodic reports from family members or other outside support (eg, mutual help group sponsor) with appropriate written consent
  • Specific medication-related monitoring
    • Naltrexone
      • Monitor clinically for adverse events such as nausea, hepatotoxicity (rare), and depression; injection site reactions may occur with intramuscular dosing r4c245c246
      • Some sources recommend periodically monitoring liver transaminase levels about every 6 months; discontinue drug if transaminase levels rise above 3 times baseline values r33r39c247
    • Acamprosate
      • Drug is well-tolerated; however, diarrhea is not uncommon r4
      • Monitor renal function in patients 65 years and older and in patients with decreased renal function (creatinine clearance rate less than 70 mL/minute/1.73 m²) r23c248c249
      • Clinically monitor for depression, suicidality, and ethanol withdrawal symptoms c250c251c252
    • Disulfiram
      • Monitor for idiosyncratic toxic hepatitis;r4 no rigorously standardized monitoring regimen is established
        • Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration recommends baseline liver function tests with follow-up 10 to 14 days after starting drug, followed by continued periodic monitoring r23c253
      • Monitor clinically for other adverse events, including neuropathy and psychosis r4c254
      • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggests periodically monitoring CBC and serum chemistries r23c255c256
    • Topiramate
      • Monitor clinically for adverse events including paresthesias, taste disturbance, cognitive impairment, depression, weight loss, diarrhea, depression, suicidality, and visual disturbances r4c257
      • Many experts recommend periodic monitoring for metabolic acidosis by checking serum bicarbonate, electrolyte abnormalities, and ammonia levels to assess for hyperammonemia c258c259c260
      • Consider referring symptomatic patients and those at risk to an ophthalmologist to monitor for acute myopia and secondary angle closure glaucoma c261c262
    • Gabapentin
      • Monitor clinically for adverse events including cognitive impairment, fatigue, and ataxia r4c263

Complications and Prognosis


  • Death c264c265c266c267c268c269
    • Consequences related to unhealthy alcohol use are a leading cause of preventable death in the United States, behind tobacco smoking and obesity/overweight status r2
    • There is a 3- to 4-fold increased rate of premature death in patients with continued alcohol problems r1
    • Leading causes of premature death include trauma-related injury, alcoholic liver disease, heart disease and stroke, cancers, and gastroesophageal disease r16
      • Alcohol-impaired driving accounts for about one-third of all driving-related fatalities r4
  • Health problems associated with unhealthy alcohol use are many and include:
    • Cardiovascular problems: hypertension, ischemic heart disease, ischemic stroke, cardiomyopathy, atrial fibrillation r2c270c271c272c273c274
      • Alcohol-related hypertension is a leading cause of reversible hypertension r16c275
    • Endocrine problems: marked increase in triglycerides and LDL-C, reduced testosterone levels in males, menstrual irregularity in females, decreased bone density, diabetes r1r11r45c276c277c278c279c280c281
    • Malignancy: oropharyngeal, laryngeal, gastroesophageal, hepatic, colorectal, breast cancers r2r45c282c283c284c285c286c287
    • Gastrointestinal problems: fatty liver, liver dysfunction, cirrhosis, esophageal varices, pancreatitis, gastritis, esophagitis, ulcers r2c288c289c290c291c292c293c294c295d6
    • Mental health problems: depression, anxiety, suicide, psychosis, other substance use problems r2r10c296c297c298c299c300
    • Neurologic problems: cognitive defects, memory impairment, peripheral neuropathy, gait instability, tremor, coordination deficits, degenerative cerebellar changes, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, alcohol-related seizures, dementia r2r11c301c302c303c304c305c306c307c308c309c310
    • Pregnancy related issues: fetal alcohol syndrome, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, spontaneous abortion r2r11c311c312c313d7
    • Traumatic injury secondary to motor vehicle accidents, injuries, violence, increased risk of suicidal behavior and completed suicide r2r11c314c315c316c317
    • Bone marrow suppression: general bone marrow suppression, decreased erythropoiesis r8r11c318c319
    • Reproductive health: recurrent sexually transmitted disease, unplanned pregnancy r7c320c321
    • Sleep issues: insomnia, sleep apnea r7c322c323
    • Infectious disease: suppressed immune system function predisposing to infection (eg, chronic infectious disease, HIV, tuberculosis, pneumonia) r1r11r45c324c325c326c327
    • Nutritional disorders (eg, thiamine, folate deficiency) c328c329
  • Social problems associated with unhealthy alcohol use are many and may include:
    • Relationship problems: problems at home, at work, with friends c330
    • Employment, financial, and educational problems: failure to meet job or academic obligations, loss of job, dismissal from educational opportunities c331c332c333c334
    • Legal problems: operation of vehicles or machinery while intoxicated, charges related to violence (including intimate partner violence), incarceration c335c336
  • Withdrawal r46
    • Acute withdrawal phase d1
      • Usually manifests several hours after diminished alcohol consumption or abstinence and usually lasts up to a week
      • Characterized by central nervous system hyperexcitability with tremors, autonomic hyperactivity, and risk for seizures and delirium tremens c337c338c339
    • Early abstinence phase
      • May last up to 3 to 6 weeks
      • Characterized by depressed mood, anxiety, and sleep disturbances c340c341c342
    • Protracted abstinence syndrome (postacute withdrawal)
      • Some patients experience prolonged withdrawal manifestations (lasting more than 3 months) after acute withdrawal phase
      • Characterized by the following:
        • Sleep disturbances, hyperreactivity to stress and discomfort, altered emotional processing, depressed mood, and elevated anxiety c343c344c345c346c347
        • Seemingly insignificant challenges may provoke extreme anxiety and negative affect
        • Normally pleasurable events may result in attenuation or absence of expected positive responses during this period
      • Associated with increased risk of obsessions surrounding alcohol and relapse c348


  • Alcohol use disorder is undertreated in the United States
    • Fewer than one-third of patients receive any treatment r2
    • Fewer than 10% of patients receive a medication intended to prevent relapse or reduce alcohol consumption r2
  • Patients treated for alcohol use disorder
    • Alcohol use disorder is not an intractable condition r11
      • Typical patient with effectively treated disease experiences a promising prognosis
      • Minority of patients with severe disease experience years of alcohol-related problems
    • Various treatment approaches achieve 1- to 5-year successful sobriety rates between 15% and 35% r2
    • Patients with severe alcohol use disorder can rarely ever successfully return to controlled or moderate drinking r16
    • Better outcomes are associated with more intense treatment, less severe alcohol problems, less cognitive impairment, higher self-confidence regarding outcome, and fewer comorbid psychiatric disorders r1

Screening and Prevention


At-risk populations

  • Several guidelines and task force recommendations advocate for universal screening of all adults for unhealthy alcohol use r2
    • Yearly screening is recommended by most experts;r7r47 however, it may be impractical in some instances r9
    • Some experts recommend targeted yearly screening for certain patients at increased risk for disease or disease consequences such as: r9
      • At high risk for unhealthy drinking (eg, smokers, adolescents, young adults) r9
      • With symptoms that may result from heavy drinking (eg, depression, anxiety, insomnia, tremor, elevated transaminases) r9
      • Who will be taking prescription medication r9
      • Who may become pregnant r9
      • Who present to emergency department r9
      • Who are elderly, particularly with initiation of any new medication and significant change in health status r48
      • With family history of alcohol use disorder or addiction r48
      • Who have conditions that can be caused by alcohol use
    • Despite recommendations, most adults are not asked about alcohol use by medical providers r2
  • Specific screening recommendations and suggestions for appropriate intervention for patients who screen positive are provided by several organizations, including:
    • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
      • Recommends SBIRT approach (screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment) r49
    • US Preventive Services Task Force r50
    • US Department of Veterans Affairs r47
    • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism r22
    • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence r31

Screening tests

  • Validated screening tools for unhealthy alcohol use (risky drinking) and alcohol use disorder include: r2
    • First tier screening tools
      • Single question screen c349
        • Questioning process
          • First ask if patient sometimes drinks beer, wine, or other alcoholic beverages
          • When affirmative, follow-up with single question asking how many times in the past year patient has had 5 or more drinks in a day (men younger than 65 years) or 4 or more drinks in a day (all women and men aged 65 years and older) r2
        • Results and test characteristics
          • Response of 1 or more times establishes a positive screen r2
          • Sensitivity is around 82% and specificity is around 79% for detecting unhealthy alcohol use r2r7r8
          • Sensitivity is around 87% and specificity is around 67% for detecting alcohol use disorder r7
      • AUDIT-C (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test–Consumption) c350
        • 3-question tool (first 3 questions of the AUDIT); takes about 1 to 2 minutes to complete r2
          • AUDIT-C (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test–Consumption).AUDIT-C consists of the first 3 AUDIT questions. Threshold for positive screen is variably defined. Many sources use a cut point score for positive screen in women of 3 or more and in men of 4 or more.Data from Babor TF et al: AUDIT: The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test: Guidelines for Use in Primary Health Care. 2nd ed. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO; 2001.
            Questions0 points1 point2 points3 points4 points
            1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?NeverMonthly2-4 times a month2 or 3 times a week4 or more times a week
            2. How many drinks containing alcohol do you have on a typical day when you are drinking?1 or 23 or 45 or 67-910 or more
            3. How often do you have 5 or more drinks on 1 occasion?NeverLess than monthlyMonthlyWeeklyDaily or almost daily
        • Scores range from 0 to 12; higher scores indicate greater alcohol consumption r5
        • Results
          • Threshold for positive screen is variably defined
          • Some sources consider a score of 3 or more for women and 4 or more for men a positive screen r2r8
          • Other sources report that a cutoff score of 3 suggests hazardous drinking and 4 or more suggests possible alcohol use disorder r16
        • Test characteristics
          • Sensitivity and specificity for unhealthy alcohol use depend on cutoff threshold used and population screened
            • Using threshold score of 4 in men, sensitivity is about 86% and specificity ranges from 72% to 89% r2
            • Using threshold score of 3 in women, sensitivity ranges from about 60% to 73% and specificity ranges from 91% to 96% r2
      • CAGE questionnaire (cut-down, annoyed, guilty, eye-opener) r51c351
        • Reasonable tool for identifying alcohol use disorder; however, CAGE questionnaire is considered inferior to single question screen and AUDIT-C for detecting full range of unhealthy alcohol use r2
        • Questions r51
          • Cut down: have you felt you should cut down on your alcohol consumption?
          • Annoyed: have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
          • Guilt: have you felt guilty about your drinking?
          • Eye opener: have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning (ie, had an eye opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
        • Results r52
          • Any affirmative response suggests possible unhealthy drinking behavior and requires further evaluation for alcohol use disorder
          • 2 or more affirmative answers are suggestive of probable alcohol use disorder (patients with 2 or more affirmative answers are up to 7-fold more likely to have alcohol use disorderr53)
        • Test characteristics
          • CAGE tool has a lower sensitivity for detecting risky drinking behavior compared with other first tier screening tools but will identify most patients with alcohol use disorder r2r7
          • 2 or more affirmative answers suggests a clinically significant alcohol use problem with a measured sensitivity range of 78% to 81% and specificity of 76% to 96% in various populations and settings r54
    • Second tier screening tool
      • AUDIT full version (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test) c352
        • Some experts suggest using AUDIT instead of abbreviated first tier tools when clinical suspicion of alcohol use disorder is high for improved test characteristics r7
        • 10-question tool; takes about 5 minutes to complete r2
        • Results
          • All results must be combined with a thorough patient history and physical examination to be useful
          • Scores range from 0 to 40; higher scores indicate increased likelihood of harmful drinking r5
          • Positive screen with high likelihood of hazardous drinking is indicated by:
            • Score of 8 or more for men up to age 60 years or 4 or more for women, adolescents, and men older than 60 years r22
          • High likelihood of alcohol use disorder is indicated by either:
            • Total score of 13 or greater in women and 15 or greater in men r2
            • Subscore of at least 2 points total from questions 4, 5, and 6 (total score of less than 13 for women, less than 15 for men) r2
        • Test characteristics
          • Sensitivity and specificity for heavy alcohol use are variably reported and depend on cutoff threshold used and population screened r22
            • Cutoff threshold of 4 or greater: sensitivity 84% to 85% and specificity 77% to 84% r5
            • Cutoff threshold of 5 or greater: sensitivity 70% to 92% and specificity 73% to 94% r5
        • Suggested response to scores in a primary care setting from 1 source includes r16
          • Score 0 to 7: provide basic alcohol education
          • Score 8 to 15: advise about reducing hazardous drinking behaviors
          • Score 16 to 19: impose brief intervention and provide advice about reducing hazardous drinking behaviors. Strongly encourage patient to diminish intake. Continue monitoring
          • Score 20 to 40: refer to specialized treatment
        • AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test).Total score of 13 or higher for women and 15 or higher for men indicates a high likelihood of alcohol use disorder. A subscore of at least 2 points (total) from questions 4, 5, and 6 indicate a high likelihood of alcohol use disorder in women with a total score below 13 and men below 15.Data from Babor TF et al: AUDIT: The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test: Guidelines for Use in Primary Health Care. 2nd ed. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO; 2001.
          Questions0 points1 point2 points3 points4 points
          1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?NeverMonthly2-4 times a month2 or 3 times a week4 or more times a week
          2. How many drinks containing alcohol do you have on a typical day when you are drinking?1 or 23 or 45 or 67-910 or more
          3. How often do you have 5 or more drinks on 1 occasion?NeverLess than monthlyMonthlyWeeklyDaily or almost daily
          4. How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?NeverLess than monthlyMonthlyWeeklyDaily or almost daily
          5. How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected of you because of drinking?NeverLess than monthlyMonthlyWeeklyDaily or almost daily
          6. How often during the past year have you needed a first drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?NeverLess than monthlyMonthlyWeeklyDaily or almost daily
          7. How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?NeverLess than monthlyMonthlyWeeklyDaily or almost daily
          8. How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because of your drinking?NeverLess than monthlyMonthlyWeeklyDaily or almost daily
          9. Have you or someone else been injured because of your drinking?NoYes, but not in the last yearYes, during the last year
          10. Has a relative, friend, doctor, or other health care worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?NoYes, but not in the last yearYes, during the last year
    • The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends the AUDIT, AUDIT-C, or the single-question National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism screen as the most accurate means of assessing for unhealthy alcohol intake r50r55
      • CAGE screening tool has low sensitivity at lower levels of alcohol intake
  • Screening in special populations
    • Adolescents
      • CRAFFT Screening Interview was developed specifically for adolescents. It screens for alcohol and drug use and has been validated r56c353
        • Made up of 6 questions. If 2 or more are answered affirmatively, test is considered positive and further evaluation should be done
          • C: have you ridden in a car driven by someone (including yourself) who was high or had been using alcohol or drugs?
          • R: do you ever use alcohol or drugs to relax, feel better about yourself, or fit in?
          • A: do you ever use alcohol or drugs while you are by yourself, alone?
          • F: do you ever forget things you did while using alcohol or drugs?
          • F: do your family or friends ever tell you that you should cut down on your drinking or drug use?
          • T: have you ever gotten in trouble while you were using alcohol or drugs?
      • Single-question screening r57
        • In the past year, how many times have you used alcohol?
          • If answer is "none," screen is considered negative. Any amount of alcohol consumption is considered a positive screen and requires further discussion and advice
      • 2-question screening tool; specific questions vary based on patient age. Questions for high schoolers include: r21
        • In the past year, on how many days have you had more than a few sips of beer, wine, or any drink containing alcohol?
          • Any number of days drinking suggests need for further discussion and advice
        • If your friends drink, how many drinks do they usually drink on an occasion?
          • Friends drinking 3 or more drinks suggests need for further discussion and advice
    • Pregnant women
      • T-ACE (tolerance, annoyance, cut down, eye-opener), TWEAK (tolerance, worry, eye-opener, amnesia, k/cut down), and AUDIT-C are examples of tools validated for use in this population r58c354c355c356
      • Include or modify at least 1 item while questioning pregnant patients to assess for any consumption of alcohol, regardless of tool used
  • Provide appropriate interventions for patients who screen positive for unhealthy alcohol use or potential alcohol use disorder
    • Risky drinking behavior
      • Brief behavioral counseling provided in primary care setting may reduce self-reported unhealthy alcohol use r2r8
      • Clinical approach protocol is available on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website r25
    • Potential alcohol use disorder
      • Diagnosis requires clinical interview to assess for fulfillment of DSM-5 criteria r2
      • Treatment requires more intensive interventions with counseling and medications r2
  • Implementing screening and appropriate interventions in the primary care setting
    • Implementation may require additional support systems, changes in staffing or staff roles, formal protocols, and additional provider and staff training r2
    • Health care provider may run into barriers, including lack of training and expertise, competing priorities, misconceptions about benefits of interventions, lack of confidence about ability to help patients with unhealthy alcohol use, and inadequate infrastructure r2


  • Educational programs are available for several target populations
    • Children and adolescents r59c357c358
      • School- and college-based interventions
      • Anticipatory guidance delivered in primary care setting
      • Community- and family-based interventions
    • Adults r59c359c360
      • Workplace and military interventions
    • All ages
      • Laws, taxes, and government regulations regarding (and legal consequences associated with) alcohol sale and consumption r60
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