Ethanol toxicity

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  • Rate of ETOH elimination is 15-30mg/dL/hr (depending on degree of chronic alcohol intake)

Clinical Features

Classic Features

  • Slurred speech
  • Nystagmus
  • Ataxia
  • N/V
  • Alcohol odor on breath
  • Respiratory depression
  • Coma

Other Features (if malnourished)

  • Hypoglycemia
  • Ketoacidosis
  • Lactic acidosis
  • Epigastric pain (pancreatitis)

Mellanby effect

  • Impairment is greater at a given blood alcohol concentration when the level is rising than when it is falling. [1]

Differential Diagnosis

Sedative/hypnotic toxicity

Altered mental status

Diffuse brain dysfunction

Primary CNS disease or trauma



Clinical diagnosis. No specific workup required, but the following may be considered based on clinical picture/gestalt:

  • Fingerstick glucose (recommended as minimum workup in all pts with AMS)
  • Blood alcohol level (BAL)
    • Correlates poorly with degree of intoxication[2]
  • Maintain low threshold for imaging in intoxicated patient with signs of trauma.


  • Supportive care is mainstay of ED treatment and is based on clinical presentation.
    • Manage ABCs
    • Benzodiazepines or haloperidol for agitation.
  • IV fluids are commonly used but do not hasten ETOH elimination or reduce length of stay[3][4]


  • Can be discharged once patient at baseline mental status, able to tolerate PO and ambulate without assistance.

See Also


  1. Wang MQ, Nicholson ME, Mahoney BS, et al. Proprioceptive responses under rising and falling BACs: a test of the Mellanby effect. Percept Mot Skills. 1993 Aug;77(1):83-8.
  2. Olson KN, Smith SW, Kloss JS, et al. Relationship between blood alcohol concentration and observable symptoms of intoxication in patients presenting to an emergency department. Alcohol Alcohol. 2013 Jul-Aug;48(4):386-9. doi: 10.1093/alcalc/agt042.
  3. Perez SR, Keijzers G, Steele M. Intravenous 0.9% sodium chloride therapy does not reduce length of stay of alcohol-intoxicated patients in the emergency department: a randomised controlled trial. Emerg Med Australas. 2013 Dec;25(6):527-34. doi: 10.1111/1742-6723.12151.
  4. Li J, Mills T, Erato R. Intravenous saline has no effect on blood ethanol clearance. J Emerg Med. 1999 Jan-Feb;17(1):1-5.