Evidence-Based Reviews

Managing patients with comorbid opioid and alcohol use disorders

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Consider the type and severity of withdrawal symptoms, patients’ goals, and other factors.



When left untreated, opioid use disorder (OUD) is a debilitating and potentially lethal illness. Despite the availability of safe and effective medications for OUD, the prevalence of opioid use and overdose deaths has been increasing every year.1 An additional challenge in OUD treatment is the high prevalence of comorbid alcohol use disorder (AUD).2-6 A Clinical Trials Network survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found 38% of persons seeking treatment for OUD also had AUD.7 Other analyses have found alcohol was involved in approximately one-fifth of opioid-related deaths.8 Research also reveals that comorbid OUD and AUD contributes to poor treatment outcomes, more medical comorbidities, and a high risk of death (including overdose death).4,9 There is no standard of care for this particular patient population.3 This article reviews the evidence and summarizes practical considerations regarding the clinical management of patients with comorbid OUD and AUD.

To illustrate the various decision points, we will follow 2 hypothetical patients through various stages of treatment (Figure), from their presentation in the emergency department (ED) or outpatient clinic, through their hospital admission (if needed), and into their outpatient follow-up treatment.

Treating patients with comorbid AUD and OUD


Ms. A and Ms. B present to the ED for evaluation of nausea, vomiting, sweating, anxiety, and tremor. Both patients describe their most recent use of both alcohol and opioids approximately 12 hours ago, and each has been attempting to stop using both substances at home.

Decision-making in the emergency setting

In the ED, a few important decisions need to be made regarding treatment:

  • Are the presenting symptoms primarily due to alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), opioid withdrawal syndrome (OWS), or both?
  • Does the patient require inpatient medical withdrawal management (detoxification) based on the history and severity of the withdrawal symptoms?
  • What are the patient’s treatment goals for their AUD and OUD?
  • Is maintenance medication for OUD indicated? If so, which medication is most appropriate?

In the ED, the presentation of individuals affected by both OUD and AUD can be challenging because OWS shares overlapping features with AWS, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, anxiety, and tremor. However, although acute OWS is typically very uncomfortable, it is rarely lethal. On the other hand, severe AWS may result in delirium, seizures, and death,10 which makes it essential to recognize and treat appropriately.

Both Ms. A and Ms. B should be medically evaluated and treated by an emergency medicine physician in conjunction with psychiatric (or addiction medicine) consultation. The ED assessment of a patient presenting with both AUD and OUD should include vital signs monitoring; physical examination; blood work including comprehensive metabolic panel, serum magnesium, and phosphorus; complete blood count; pregnancy test for women of reproductive age; urine drug screen (UDS); urinalysis; and serum ethanol level. Of note, sympathetic hyperactivity is found in both alcohol and opioid withdrawal, and patients with alcohol withdrawal may also have hypokalemia, a condition associated with an increased risk of arrhythmia. Furthermore, a prolonged QTc would affect clinical decision-making about medications for OUD (ie, methadone) and withdrawal management (ie, ondansetron, trazodone, and hydroxyzine). Therefore, an electrocardiogram should be conducted, where appropriate.

Initial treatment of AWS includes vitamin supplementation (thiamine, folic acid, and multivitamins) and benzodiazepine administration (symptom-triggered and/or scheduled taper). It may also include IV fluid resuscitation, analgesics for pain, ondansetron for nausea and vomiting, and other electrolyte repletion as indicated by the laboratory results.11 Additional measures for patients in opioid withdrawal should include alpha-2 agonists such as clonidine or lofexidine for adrenergic symptoms, antiemetics, antidiarrheals, muscle relaxants, anxiolytics such as hydroxyzine, and sleep medications such as trazodone.12

Continue to: The next decision...


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