Alcohol detox helps head and neck cancer patients

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Early recognition and treatment of alcohol withdrawal syndrome can improve the outcomes of patients with head and neck cancer, researchers report in the Archives of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery.

The alcohol withdrawal syndrome includes several symptoms seen in persons who stop drinking alcohol after continuous and heavy use. Milder forms of the syndrome include seizures, tremulousness, and hallucinations, usually occurring within 6 to 48 hours after the last drink.

“Alcohol withdrawal syndrome in the postoperative, post-traumatic and other inpatient settings is a potentially life-threatening condition that is difficult to identify in its early stages and difficult to treat in its later stages,” senior investigator Dr. Theodoros N. Teknos told Reuters Health.

“In this study,” he added, “we employed a standardized treatment protocol which identified at-risk patients early and began treatment at the first signs of alcohol withdrawal syndrome.”

Teknos of the University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor, and colleagues screened postoperative patients, initially using an alcohol consumption questionnaire, and identified 26 at risk for alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Two of the selected patients showed no signs of alcohol withdrawal syndrome and three who did not meet alcohol withdrawal syndrome criteria were enrolled late after they began to develop symptoms.

Compared with 14 untreated patients who were seen before the new protocol began, the treated patients had significantly fewer alcohol withdrawal syndrome-related transfers to the intensive care unit. There was also less delirium, lower rates of breathing arrest and less violent behavior.

However, the late enrollees, say the investigators, “showed many significantly worse outcomes” than those who were identified by the initial screening.

With early screening and treatment for alcohol withdrawal syndrome, concluded Teknos, “We saw significant improvements in patient outcomes and we believe that universal application of such approaches may improve patient and health care provider safety in our nation’s hospitals.”