Pediatric Ethanol Toxicity Treatment & Management

Updated: Feb 27, 2017
  • Author: Elizabeth Fernandez, MD; Chief Editor: Timothy E Corden, MD  more...
  • Print

Approach Considerations

The mainstay of treatment of patients with ethanol toxicity is supportive care. Many modalities for treating ethanol intoxication and enhancing ethanol clearance have been attempted. In general, a conservative approach is recommended.

Hypoglycemia and respiratory depression are the 2 most immediate life-threatening complications that result from ethanol intoxication in children.

Initial care includes the following:

  • Assess the airway. If necessary, secure the airway with an endotracheal (ET) tube if the patient is not maintaining good ventilation or if a significant risk of aspiration is observed. Provide respiratory support and mechanical ventilation if needed.

  • Obtain intravenous (IV) access and replace any fluid deficit or use a maintenance fluid infusion. Use plasma expanders and vasopressors to treat hypotension, if present.

  • Ensure that the patient maintains a normal body temperature.

  • Quickly correct hypoglycemia. In children, 2-4 mL/kg of 25% dextrose solution is usually administered. A maintenance infusion of dextrose-containing IV fluids is often required. Note that this treatment does not clear ethanol from the blood

  • Correct any electrolyte abnormalities found with laboratory studies. Routine empiric electrolyte replacement is not helpful; only documented electrolytic abnormalities should be corrected.

  • If the ingestion occurred within 1 hour of presentation, placing a nasogastric tube and evacuating the stomach contents can be helpful.

  • In patients with chronic ethanol abuse, administer thiamine 100 mg IV/intramuscularly (IM) to prevent neurologic injury.

  • Additional care: If other substances have been co-ingested, initiate specific treatment for those substances, if available. For instance, naloxone can be used to reverse respiratory depression if opiate co-ingestion is suspected.

Treatments that are not recommended include the following:

  • The administration of medications to cause emesis is not recommended because of the rapid onset of central nervous system (CNS) depression and risk of aspiration.

  • The administration of activated charcoal is not recommended for isolated alcohol ingestions because it does not bind hydrocarbons or alcohols. If the clinician suspects a concomitant ingestion of other toxic products, activated charcoal may be effective in absorbing these toxins.

  • Forced diuresis is not helpful because 90% of ethanol metabolism occurs in the liver, and only 10% of the ethanol load is secreted in the urine.

  • Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor antagonists such as naloxone and flumazenil have little effect on the CNS or respiratory depression caused by ethanol; their use is not recommended in isolated ethanol intoxication.

  • Fructose infusion can increase the ethanol clearance by 25%. However, the use of fructose is not recommended because significant adverse effects may occur, such as lactic acidosis, severe osmotic diuresis, and GI symptoms

  • The effects of insulin, glucose, caffeine, and several other medications have been studied, but none consistently increases ethanol metabolism or alleviate CNS depression.

Hemodialysis efficiently clears ethanol from the blood but is an invasive procedure; thus, its use is not routinely recommended. Hemodialysis can be used in patients whose clinical condition is deteriorating or in patients whose CNS depression, respiratory depression, or hypotension is refractory to standard therapy. Patients who have impaired hepatic function may require dialysis to clear an ethanol load.

Indications for hospital admission include the following:

  • Presence of hypoglycemia

  • Suspected neglect or inadequate social support at home

  • Unstable home environment or unreliable caregiver at home

  • Presence of focal neurologic signs

  • Need for supportive care



See the list below:

  • Contact the regional or local poison control center for treatment guidance and reporting purposes.

  • Consider consulting social services personnel in all cases of ethanol intoxication in children.

  • Patients who chronically abuse alcohol may have serious nutritional deficiencies and may require a consultation with a nutritionist on an inpatient basis.



See the list below:

  • If no specific electrolyte abnormalities are present, the patient should maintain a healthy well-balanced diet.

  • All electrolytic disturbances should be corrected prior to discharge from the hospital.



See the list below:

  • No activity restrictions are indicated.