Why is my hospitalized patient with alcohol withdrawal syndrome so thrombocytopenic?

Although thrombocytopenia associated with chronic alcoholism may be related to complications of cirrhosis (eg, platelet sequestration in spleen due to portal hypertension, poor platelet production, and increased platelet destruction) (1), it may also occur in the absence of cirrhosis due to the direct toxic effect of alcohol on platelet production and survival (2).

In a prospective study of patients ingesting the equivalent of a fifth or more daily of 86 proof whiskey admitted for treatment of alcohol withdrawal—without evidence of severe liver disease, infection or sepsis— 81% had initial platelet counts below 150,000/µl, with about one-third having platelet counts below 100,000 µl (as low as 24,000/ul) (3).

In most patients, 2-3 days elapsed before the platelet count began to rise significantly, peaking 5-18 days after admission. Others have also reported that platelet counts rise within 5-7 days and normalize in a few weeks after alcohol withdrawal (1); bleeding complications have been uncommon in this setting.

Perhaps even more intriguing is the report of the association between thrombocytopenia in early alcohol withdrawal and the development of delirium tremens or seizures (sensitivity and specificity ~ 70%, positive predictive value less than 10% but with a negative predictive value of 99%) (4)! In fact, the authors suggested that, if their findings are corroborated, a normal platelet count could potentially be used to identify patients at low risk of alcohol withdrawal syndrome and therefore outpatient therapy. 

1. Mitchell O, Feldman D, Diakow M, et al. The pathophysiology of thrombocytopenia in chronic liver disease. Hepatic Medicine: Evidence and Research 2016;8 39-50. https://www.dovepress.com/the-pathophysiology-of-thrombocytopenia-in-chronic-liver-disease-peer-reviewed-article-HMER
2. Cowan DH. Effect of alcoholism on hemostasis. Semin Hematol 1980;17:137-47. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6990498
3. Cowan DH, Hines JD. Thrombocytopenia of severe alcoholism. Ann Intern Med 1971;74:37-43. http://annals.org/aim/article-abstract/685069/thrombocytopenia-severe-alcoholism.

4. Berggren U, Falke C, Berglund KJ, et al. Thrombocytopenia in early alcohol withdrawal is associated with development of delirium tremens or seizures. Alcohol & Alcoholism 2009;44:382-86. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19293148

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Why is my hospitalized patient with alcohol withdrawal syndrome so thrombocytopenic?

My 35 year old patient with Crohn’s disease has peripheral neuropathy but no anemia or macrocytosis. Could he still have vitamin B-12 deficiency?

Absolutely! A significant number of patients with B-12 deficiency are neither anemic nor have macrocytosis but may still have related neurological symptoms.

A large study involving a nationally representative sample of older U.S. adults (aged >50 y) sponsored by the CDC reported a prevalence of B-12 deficiency without anemia or without macrocytosis of about 4% each . 1 Interestingly, in this study,  there was no evidence that mandatory folic acid fortification of certain foods was associated with lower prevalence of B-12 deficiency without anemia or macrocytosis.

In another study, the proportion of subjects with low serum B-12 but without macrocytosis was 70% or higher, irrespective of pre- or post-fortification period.2 Interestingly, in the age group <65 y, the post-fortification was associated with significantly higher proportion of patients without macrocytosis (85% vs. 45% in the prefortification period) in this study.

Younger age groups seem to also be overrepresented among patients with B-12 deficiency but no anemia, with a prevalence of 50% in <60 y age group with B-12 deficiency compared to 38% and 31% among older age groups (60-74 y and >74 y, respectively).3

So, keep B-12 deficiency in mind in the presence of compatible neurological symptoms even in the absence anemia or macrocytosis!



  1. Qi YP, Do AN, Hamner HC, et al. The prevalence of low serum vitamin B-12 status in the absence of anemia or macrocytosis did not increase among older U.S. adults after mandatory folic acid fortification. J Nutr 2014;144:170-76. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/144/2/170.abstract
  2. Wyckoff KF, Ganji V. Proportion of individuals with low serum vitamin B-12 concentrations without macrocytosis is higher in the post-folic acid fortification period than in the pre-folic acid fortification period. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86:1187-92. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17921401
  3. Mills JL, Von Kohorn I, Conley MR, et al. Low vitamin B-12 concentrations in patients without anemia: the effect of folic acid fortification of grain. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;77:1474-7. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/77/6/1474.full.pdf+html
My 35 year old patient with Crohn’s disease has peripheral neuropathy but no anemia or macrocytosis. Could he still have vitamin B-12 deficiency?