Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome Diagnosis

alcohol withdrawal

Diagnosing alcohol withdrawal syndrome is the first step to getting well.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a potential risk factor that occurs when an individual who drinks heavily abruptly quits drinking and experiences symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Typically, the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome are mild to moderate but in some cases, these symptoms can progress and peak to a point in which they are severe and could cause serious life-threatening illness or the potential for death.

Diagnosing alcohol withdrawal syndrome requires a medical assessment from a treatment professional or doctor. A physical examination of the signs and symptoms that are present during the alcohol cessation will help the diagnosing physician to determine whether alcohol withdrawal syndrome is the problem or if there is another problem to be concerned about such as a medical illness. Some of the symptoms that a treatment provider will be on the lookout for when diagnosing alcohol withdrawal syndrome include:

  • fever
  • dehydration
  • tachycardia
  • tremors
  • seizures


When a physician diagnoses alcohol withdrawal syndrome in a patient, he or she will typically use the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol (CIWA-Ar) scale to determine the presence and severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. This is a 10-item assessment that includes measures to quantify the severity of alcohol withdrawal syndrome and to monitor the patient throughout the alcohol withdrawal process. This same assessment tool is also used to help the diagnosing physician to determine a proper protocol of treatment along the way.

In assessing a patient to determine whether alcohol withdrawal is the problem or whether some other mental or physical condition could be to blame, the doctor will consider the overall health picture in coming to a diagnosis. In some cases, medical conditions and certain psychiatric conditions can mimic the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal so it’s important to understand the entire picture and to make a full assessment of the patient before making a diagnosis.

Differential Diagnosis

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can often be confused with various other mental or physical health conditions. Additionally, certain medications could increase the symptoms or cause similar symptoms of alcohol withdrawal to occur. Differential diagnosis is the process of diagnosing other cases or health conditions when alcohol withdrawal syndrome seems to be to blame. The following conditions are often mistaken for alcohol withdrawal syndrome and must be ruled out before a physician makes a final diagnosis of alcohol withdrawal:

  • thyrotoxicosis
  • anticholinergic drug poisoning
  • amphetamine use
  • cocaine use
  • Central nervous system infection
  • hemorrhage
  • withdrawal from sedative-hypnotic agents

Once a doctor has ruled out the chance of the symptoms being caused by any other disease, condition or substance, treatment for alcohol withdrawal syndrome can begin. There are a number of options available to help patients overcome the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal including medications, psychosocial therapy, rest, nutritional meals and general support.