Medical needs of emergency department patients presenting with acute alcohol and drug intoxication

Published:January 01, 2021DOI:


      Study objective

      Some contend that patients with acute alcohol or illicit substance intoxication should be treated in outpatient detoxification centers rather than in the ED. However, these patients often have underlying acute medical needs. We sought to determine the frequency of medical interventions required by ED patients with alcohol or illicit substance intoxication.


      This was a prospective observational study of consecutive ED patients presenting to an urban tertiary care ED with altered mental status due to alcohol or illicit substance use. We performed data collection for patients deemed to be low-risk for complications, as defined by receiving care in an intoxication observation unit. Trained staff observed and recorded all medical interventions, including medications administered, diagnostic testing, procedures performed, and airway interventions. The incidence of agitation was recorded using the Altered Mental Status Scale (AMSS, ordinal scale from −4 to +4, where +4 is most agitated). The data analysis is descriptive.


      This analysis included 2685 encounters (1645 unique patients; median age 39; 73% male) from January to May 2019. Average breath alcohol concentration was 0.20 g/dL (range 0.00–0.47). There were 89% encounters with alcohol intoxication, and in 17% encounters the patient was suspected or known to have drug intoxication (either alone or in conjunction with alcohol use). On arrival to the ED, 372 (14%) had agitation (AMSS +1 or higher) and 32 (1%) were profoundly agitated (AMSS +4). In total, 1526 (56%) received at least one intervention that could not be provided by a local detoxification or sobering facility. Of the study population, 955 (36%) received a sedating medication, 903 (34%) required physical restraints for patients or staff safety, 575 (21%) underwent imaging studies, 318 (12%) underwent laboratory testing, 367 (13%) received another intervention (IV access, EKG, splinting, wound care, etc). Additionally, 111 (4%) patients received an airway intervention (19 intubation, 23 nasal airway, 85 supplemental oxygen) and 275 (10%) required repositioning to protect the airway. There were 168 (6%) patients admitted to the hospital.


      In this population of relatively low-risk ED patients with drug and alcohol intoxication, a substantial proportion of patients received medical interventions.
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