Clinically Reviewed by Linda Whiteside, LPCC

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson, MD

Medications Used to Treat Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Table of Contents

When a person drinks a lot of alcohol regularly, their body gets used to it. This is known as alcohol dependence. But when they suddenly stop drinking, their body can react with withdrawal symptoms. This condition is known as Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS).

Medications play a vital role in managing withdrawal symptoms. They help in controlling severe withdrawal symptoms, prevent seizures, and make the withdrawal process safer and more comfortable.

Medication-assisted treatment for alcohol withdrawal involves using specific drugs to help control withdrawal symptoms. The treatment is usually done under the care of a doctor.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Symptoms and Risks

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary in intensity and progression, reflecting the degree of the individual’s dependence on alcohol. Here are the stages of alcohol withdrawal:

Stage One – Mild Symptoms: This usually starts within 6 to 24 hours after the last alcohol intake. The symptoms are similar to other forms of anxiety and include restlessness, insomnia, and increased heart rate.

Stage Two – Moderate Withdrawal: This stage typically starts 24 to 72 hours after the last drink and can include increased blood pressure, body temperature, breathing rate, or irregular heart rate.

Stage Three – More Severe Symptoms: This stage usually begins 72+ hours after the last alcohol intake and involves serious complications like hallucinations, fever, and seizures, specifically generalized tonic clonic seizures.

Stage Four – Delirium Tremens (DTs): This is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal, occurring in a small percentage of people, and can involve severe confusion, altered mental status, and high fever. This usually occurs 72+ hours after the last drink but can be delayed up to 10 days.

Severe alcohol withdrawal can lead to several serious health risks, including:

  • Seizures: These are convulsions caused by sudden, uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. They can cause a range of symptoms, from brief lapses in attention to full-blown seizures.

  • Delirium Tremens(DTs): This is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that causes sudden and severe changes in the nervous system and mental status. Symptoms can include hallucinations, severe confusion, agitation, fever, and seizures.

  • Cardiovascular Complications: These include irregular heart rhythms and high blood pressure. In severe cases, these complications can lead to heart attacks or even sudden death.

  • Metabolic Disruptions: These include dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, which can harm various bodily functions and, in severe cases, can lead to life-threatening situations.

  • Mental Health Crises: These can include severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts or actions.

  • Death: In the most severe cases, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. This is usually the result of a combination of severe symptoms and complications, like seizures and cardiovascular complications, occurring simultaneously.

Recognizing the Importance of Medical Intervention in Alcohol Withdrawal

Medical intervention is critical for safe alcohol withdrawal. Addiction medicine specialists utilize evidence-based treatment options, including pharmacologic treatment and symptom-targeted interventions, to manage the withdrawal process effectively.

Without medical intervention:

  • Individuals may self-medicate withdrawal symptoms, leading to a cycle of continued alcohol use or substance abuse.

  • Severe symptoms such as seizures and delirium tremens may not be properly managed, leading to life-threatening situations.

  • Individuals with comorbid mental disorders may experience worsening of their psychiatric symptoms.

  • Risks of dehydration, malnutrition, and other complications increase.

Benzodiazepines: First-Line Medications for Alcohol Withdrawal

Role of Benzodiazepines in Alleviating Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Benzodiazepines, as the first-line treatment for alcohol withdrawal syndrome, serve an essential role in managing withdrawal symptoms. These drugs act on the central nervous system (CNS) to decrease symptom severity and increase patient comfort. Their role includes:

  • Reducing CNS Excitability: Benzodiazepines reduce the hyperactivity of the central nervous system during alcohol withdrawal, helping to alleviate symptoms such as tremors, agitation, and anxiety.

  • Preventing Severe Withdrawal Complications: They also prevent the onset of more severe symptoms, including alcohol withdrawal seizures and delirium tremens.

  • Reducing Cravings: Some studies suggest that benzodiazepines might also help reduce alcohol craving, which can be intense during the withdrawal phase.

Commonly Used Benzodiazepines for Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment

Different benzodiazepines are used for treating alcohol withdrawal based on their properties. Some commonly used include:

  • Diazepam: It is a long-acting benzodiazepine often used in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal due to its active metabolites. It is particularly useful for patients with liver disease, as it does not require hepatic activation.

  • Lorazepam: Preferred in cases of severe liver disease, lorazepam is a shorter-acting benzodiazepine that does not have active metabolites.

  • Chlordiazepoxide: Known for its long half-life and active metabolites, chlordiazepoxide is often used in the fixed tapering dose regimen.

These drugs aid in easing symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, and seizures, which are common in alcohol withdrawal.

Dosage, Administration, and Monitoring Considerations for Benzodiazepines

The dosage and type of benzodiazepine given to alcohol-dependent patients may vary depending on the severity of symptoms, patient’s liver function, and presence of co-occurring mental disorders or medical conditions. Here are some key considerations:

Dosage: Using a loading dose regimen or a symptom-triggered regimen can be effective. Dosages should be adjusted based on symptom severity and patient response.

Administration: Benzodiazepines can be administered during inpatient and outpatient detoxification settings. The choice depends on the severity of the alcohol use disorder, availability of support, and presence of co-occurring conditions.

Monitoring: Doctors should closely monitor patients undergoing benzodiazepine treatment for alcohol withdrawal. Regular use of an objective withdrawal scale, like the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol scale, is advisable.

Safety Considerations: Prolonged use of benzodiazepines can lead to benzodiazepine addiction. So, it’s essential to monitor for signs of drug abuse and to consider other treatment options, such as gabapentin treatment, if necessary.

Benzodiazepines, when used appropriately, can be a valuable tool in the clinical management of alcohol withdrawal.

Anticonvulsants for Alcohol Withdrawal Management

Utilizing Anticonvulsant Medications to Prevent Seizures in Alcohol Withdrawal

Anticonvulsants play a pivotal role in managing and preventing seizures associated with alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Two commonly used medications include:

  1. Carbamazepine: A drug frequently used for managing withdrawal symptoms, Carbamazepine can prevent seizures by stabilizing the overactive electrical activity in the brain. It’s especially effective for individuals with multiple previous alcohol withdrawals.

  2. Gabapentin: This drug can be particularly useful for treating mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms , including the prevention of seizures. Gabapentin has also been shown to reduce alcohol craving, which aids in the overall treatment of alcohol use disorders.

Effectiveness and Safety Profile of Anticonvulsants in Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment

Research has provided evidence supporting the effectiveness and safety of anticonvulsants in alcohol withdrawal treatment. Here are some important points:

Effectiveness: Studies, including randomized treatment trials, have shown that anticonvulsants can be as effective as benzodiazepines in treating mild to moderate alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Safety: Anticonvulsants typically have fewer side effects compared to benzodiazepines, reducing the risk of dependency and rebound withdrawal symptoms.

Outpatient Treatment: Anticonvulsants can be safely used in outpatient randomized trials, offering an option for ambulatory medical detoxification.

Combination Therapy: Benzodiazepines and Anticonvulsants for Severe Withdrawal

For severe cases of alcohol withdrawal, combining benzodiazepines with anticonvulsants can be highly beneficial. Some key considerations include:

Enhanced Symptom Management: The combined use of these drugs can manage more severe withdrawal symptoms effectively, ensuring comprehensive clinical management.

Seizure Prevention: Combining benzodiazepines with anticonvulsants reduces the risk of withdrawal seizures by lowering the seizure threshold, which is often compromised in severe alcohol withdrawal.

Improved Treatment Outcomes: The combination therapy can lead to improved treatment outcomes, including lower rates of delirium tremens and overall withdrawal severity.

Anticonvulsants provide a safe and effective treatment option for alcohol withdrawal, particularly in managing and preventing seizures. In combination with benzodiazepines, they can effectively manage severe withdrawal symptoms.

Other Medications Used in Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment

Beta Blockers: Managing Cardiovascular Symptoms in Alcohol Withdrawal

Beta blockers are pharmaceutical agents that play a key role in managing the cardiovascular symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal. They operate by mitigating the effects of adrenaline on your heart, which in turn, helps in controlling symptoms such as:

  • High heart rate: A rapid heartbeat is a common symptom in alcohol withdrawal syndrome, making beta blockers a valuable tool in controlling this condition.

  • High blood pressure: Alcohol withdrawal can cause spikes in blood pressure, which beta blockers help manage.

Alpha-2 Agonists: Addressing Autonomic Hyperactivity during Withdrawal

Alpha-2 agonists are another class of drugs that can be employed in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal. Specifically, they are effective in managing autonomic symptoms, including:

  • Sweating: Alpha-2 agonists help regulate the body’s excessive sweating response during alcohol withdrawal.

  • Tremors: These medications can help reduce the occurrence and severity of tremors experienced during alcohol withdrawal.

Other Adjunctive Medications for Specific Symptoms in Alcohol Withdrawal

Various other medications can also be used to manage specific symptoms experienced during alcohol withdrawal. These include:

  • Anti-nausea drugs: These can help control symptoms of nausea and vomiting, which are often associated with alcohol withdrawal.

  • Antipsychotic medications: In certain severe cases, these may be used to manage altered mental status or hallucinations that may arise due to alcohol withdrawal.

The selected treatment options will always depend on the individual’s symptoms, their severity, his or her dependence on alcohol, and any other concurrent mental disorders. Always, an addiction medicine specialist should closely monitor the progress of the patient during this sensitive period. It’s also important to remember that the goal of medication in alcohol withdrawal is not just to treat withdrawal but also to reduce the long-term risks associated with alcohol use and promote lasting recovery. Treatment may include inpatient and outpatient detoxification, recurrent withdrawal assessments, and potentially even family therapy and other outpatient randomized trials.

Individualized Treatment Approach for Alcohol Withdrawal

The treatment for alcohol withdrawal must be a tailored approach. It starts with recognizing that alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a complex condition that varies greatly from person to person, driven by factors such as the individual’s level of alcohol dependence, the severity of withdrawal symptoms, and the presence of other health conditions. As such, it’s crucial that healthcare professionals assess each patient on a case-by-case basis to establish an effective treatment plan.

A few key aspects to consider in this individualized treatment approach include:

  • Individual Assessment: Healthcare professionals must conduct a thorough individual assessment of each patient. This includes understanding the patient’s alcohol use history, symptom severity, and the presence of any co-occurring mental or physical health conditions. The Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol scale is often used to assess the severity of alcohol withdrawal and guide treatment options.

  • Tailoring Medication Regimens: The type and dosage of medications used to manage withdrawal symptoms can vary greatly depending on the severity of the patient’s symptoms and their overall health. For example, someone with severe alcohol withdrawal might require long-acting benzodiazepines or adjunctive medications like beta blockers to manage cardiovascular symptoms, while someone with milder symptoms might benefit from a symptom-triggered regimen.

  • Collaborative Decision-Making: Collaborative decision-making is critical in managing alcohol withdrawal. Patients, their family members, and healthcare professionals should work together to create and implement an effective treatment plan. This can range from outpatient randomized trials to more intensive inpatient treatment.

In sum, managing alcohol withdrawal is a complex process that requires an individualized approach, careful monitoring, and often a combination of pharmacologic treatments. It’s important to remember that successful withdrawal management is just the first step in treating alcohol use disorder, and it should be followed by comprehensive addiction treatment to reduce the risk of relapse and promote long-term recovery.

Detoxification and Inpatient Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal

When it comes to managing severe alcohol withdrawal, a comprehensive approach is often necessary, and this often involves detoxification and inpatient treatment. This strategy not only provides a controlled environment with constant medical supervision, but it also integrates medication, therapy, and supportive care to facilitate recovery. A detailed look at this approach includes:

Medical Supervision and Monitoring

In severe cases of alcohol withdrawal, the patient’s health can rapidly deteriorate, necessitating inpatient treatment. This involves hospitalization where the patient is closely monitored by healthcare professionals. Key components of this monitoring include:

  • Assessing the severity of withdrawal symptoms using tools like the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol scale.

  • Adjusting treatment protocols based on the patient’s symptom severity and overall health status.

  • Monitoring for potential complications, such as alcohol withdrawal seizures or delirium tremens.

Role of Medications

Medications are integral to inpatient alcohol detoxification programs. These play a crucial role in managing both the physical and psychological aspects of withdrawal and can include:

  • Long-acting benzodiazepines to manage symptoms like anxiety, agitation, and seizures.

  • Adjunctive medications, like beta blockers or antipsychotics, to manage other symptoms or complications.

  • A symptom-triggered therapy approach may be used, where medication is administered based on the severity and type of symptoms the patient is experiencing.

Integration of Therapies and Supportive Care

Inpatient treatment is not only about managing the immediate symptoms of withdrawal, but also about setting the groundwork for long-term recovery from alcohol dependence. This is achieved through a holistic approach that includes:

  • Psychological therapy to address any underlying mental disorders, build coping skills, and prepare the patient for life after detoxification.

  • Supportive care, such as nutritional support and treatment of concurrent medical conditions, to help the patient regain their overall health.

  • Education and counseling about alcohol use and its risks, as well as strategies to prevent relapse.

In summary, inpatient treatment for severe alcohol withdrawal represents a comprehensive approach that melds close medical monitoring, tailored medication regimens, and integrated therapy and supportive care. This approach aims not only to safely manage alcohol withdrawal but also to set the stage for long-term recovery and prevention of relapse.

Outpatient Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

The management of alcohol withdrawal symptoms is not confined to hospital settings. In fact, for cases of mild to moderate withdrawal, outpatient management can be a feasible and effective option. However, this approach requires appropriate medication protocols, careful patient selection, and diligent follow-up care to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Outpatient Medication Protocols for Mild to Moderate Alcohol Withdrawal

Outpatient treatment typically involves prescribed medications to manage withdrawal symptoms and regular visits to a healthcare provider. This approach might include:

  • Administration of medication regimens that may involve benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, or other medications as appropriate. For example, a symptom-triggered regimen could be employed, where medications are administered based on the severity and type of the patient’s symptoms.

  • Patient education about the effects and potential side effects of the medications, as well as the importance of adherence to the prescribed regimen.

  • Monitoring of alcohol concentrations and consumption patterns to assess the effectiveness of treatment and adjust the medication protocol as necessary.

Considerations for Home-Based Detoxification and Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient management requires careful patient selection and appropriate support at home. Key considerations include:

  • The patient’s home environment needs to be stable and supportive, free from triggers that might encourage alcohol consumption.

  • The patient should be able to understand and adhere to the treatment protocol, including taking prescribed medications, avoiding alcohol, and attending follow-up appointments.

  • Patients with only mild symptoms, no previous severe withdrawals or history of withdrawal seizures or delirium tremens, and no co-existing serious mental or physical disorders are typically the best candidates for outpatient treatment.

Importance of Follow-up Care and Monitoring in Outpatient Settings

Regular check-ups are critical to the success of outpatient treatment. They allow for ongoing evaluation of the patient’s progress and early identification of any potential complications. These check-ups might involve:

  • Regular clinical assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment and the patient’s withdrawal symptoms using tools like the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol scale.

  • Screening for and management of any emerging or existing co-occurring mental disorders.

  • Modification of the treatment plan based on the patient’s progress and any emerging issues.

In summary, while outpatient management of alcohol withdrawal can be effective for patients with mild to moderate symptoms, it requires careful planning and execution, a suitable home environment, patient commitment, and meticulous follow-up care to ensure success.

Long-Term Management and Relapse Prevention

Long-term management and prevention of relapse are integral parts of the recovery journey for individuals dealing with alcohol use disorder. This approach often involves a combination of medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, and support networks to maintain progress and prevent setbacks.

Medications Used in Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment Beyond Withdrawal Phase

Even after the acute phase of alcohol withdrawal, certain medications can play a pivotal role in promoting recovery and preventing relapse.

  • Naltrexone, for example, can help to reduce alcohol craving and the risk of relapse in people with alcohol use disorder. It works by blocking the pleasurable effects of alcohol in the brain, thus reducing the incentive to drink.

  • Acamprosate can help to restore the balance in the central nervous system that has been disrupted by chronic alcohol abuse. This can aid in alleviating long-term withdrawal symptoms and making it easier for the patient to maintain abstinence.

Pharmacotherapy Options for Relapse Prevention and Sustained Recovery

Choosing the right medication for long-term treatment can depend on various factors, including the patient’s health status, the severity of their alcohol use disorder, and their personal recovery goals. In a randomized treatment trial, the effectiveness of different medications can be evaluated and the most suitable one selected. It’s crucial to remember that medication alone is not a solution, but a tool that can make the process of recovery more manageable when used as part of a comprehensive approach.

Incorporating Therapy, Support Groups, and Lifestyle Changes in Long-Term Care

Medication management should be supplemented with other long-term care strategies for a holistic approach.

  • Therapy: Various forms of therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and family therapy, can provide individuals with coping strategies to handle triggers and stressors that may lead to relapse.

  • Support groups: Peer support groups can provide a sense of community and shared understanding, which can be particularly helpful during recovery. Examples include 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

  • Lifestyle changes: Incorporating healthy lifestyle changes, such as regular physical exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and stress management techniques, can help improve the overall well-being and resilience of individuals in recovery.

In essence, the long-term management of alcohol use disorder and relapse prevention requires a multi-pronged approach involving pharmacotherapy, therapy, support networks, and lifestyle changes. It’s important to remember that each person’s journey to recovery is unique, and treatment plans should be tailored to their specific needs and circumstances.

Potential Challenges and Side Effects of Medications

The use of medications in managing alcohol withdrawal syndrome and facilitating long-term recovery does not come without potential challenges and side effects. It’s essential to adopt a proactive approach towards monitoring, managing, and minimizing adverse effects to ensure the treatment’s success and patient’s comfort.

Monitoring for Adverse Effects and Risks Associated with Medications

Medications used for alcohol withdrawal and long-term management, like all pharmaceutical interventions, can present adverse effects. These effects can range from minor symptoms such as mild nausea to more significant issues such as severe allergic reactions or drug interactions. In light of these possibilities, regular monitoring is crucial.

  • Monitoring can include regular check-ups with the healthcare provider, laboratory tests, and assessments of mental and physical health status.

  • The Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment is a useful tool in monitoring the severity of withdrawal symptoms and the effectiveness of treatment.

  • Also, patient self-reporting of any uncomfortable or unexpected symptoms can help in early detection and management of potential side effects.

Addressing Potential Challenges and Considerations in Medication Management

Some challenges that may arise in medication management include managing side effects, ensuring medication adherence, and monitoring for potential drug interactions, especially in patients with co-occurring mental disorders or those on multiple medications.

  • Each of these challenges requires careful and individualized management. For instance, addressing medication side effects may require dose adjustments, alternative medication choices, or the addition of adjunctive treatments.

  • Patient education and involvement in the treatment process are critical in promoting medication adherence. This can be achieved by clearly explaining the medication’s purpose, its potential side effects, and the importance of regular intake.

Strategies for Minimizing Side Effects and Maximizing Treatment Benefits

Strategies to achieve this balance can include:

  • Dose Adjustments: Based on the patient’s tolerance and the severity of withdrawal symptoms, the dose of medication can be adjusted. Lowering the dose can often mitigate side effects, while ensuring effective symptom management.

  • Alternative Medication: If a patient experiences severe or intolerable side effects, a different medication may be considered. This is often done under a randomized treatment trial to assess the patient’s response to the new drug.

  • Patient Education: By educating patients about potential side effects, they are better prepared for what to expect and more likely to adhere to treatment. This should be done in a clear, easy-to-understand manner, explaining both the benefits and potential side effects of the prescribed medication.

Managing the challenges and potential side effects associated with medications used in alcohol withdrawal and ongoing treatment requires a careful, individualized, and dynamic approach, central to which is a strong therapeutic relationship between the patient and healthcare provider.


Medications are a key part of treating alcohol withdrawal. They can help manage symptoms and reduce the risk of serious complications.

Medical supervision and individualized care are important to ensure safe and effective treatment.

With the right treatment, recovery is possible. There is always hope for a better life.

Take the First Step Towards Recovery at NuView Treatment Center

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol dependence and withdrawal, you don’t have to face it alone. At NuView Treatment Center, we provide individualized, comprehensive, and compassionate care, designed to meet the unique needs of each patient.

We understand the challenges of alcohol withdrawal and the vital role that medication, along with therapy and support, play in ensuring a safe and successful recovery. Our team of experienced and dedicated professionals are here to guide you through every step of your journey, from managing withdrawal symptoms to long-term relapse prevention.

Don’t let alcohol control your life. Contact NuView Treatment Center today and let us help you regain control, build a healthier future, and start a new chapter in your life. Your journey towards recovery starts here.

Frequently Asked Questions

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Yes, there are several medications available that can help individuals stop drinking. These include Naltrexone, which helps to reduce the craving for alcohol, and Disulfiram, which causes unpleasant side effects if alcohol is consumed, deterring individuals from drinking. Other medications such as Acamprosate can help to restore the balance in the brain that has been disrupted by heavy drinking over time.

Disulfiram, also known by the brand name Antabuse, is a medication that interferes with the way your body breaks down alcohol. When you drink while taking Disulfiram, it causes a severe reaction including nausea, flushing, and heart palpitations. The intention is to deter individuals from drinking due to the discomfort associated with consuming alcohol while on the medication.

Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium) or chlordiazepoxide (Librium), are often the drugs of choice for managing alcohol withdrawal syndrome. They help to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and prevent complications like seizures. The specific drug and dose will depend on the patient’s symptoms, overall health, and the severity of their alcohol dependence.

In addition to medication, there are several strategies that can help manage withdrawal symptoms:

  • Regular check-ups with a healthcare provider

  • Staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet

  • Getting plenty of rest

  • Engaging in light physical activity, as approved by a healthcare provider

  • Joining a support group or undergoing counseling

  • Utilizing stress management techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises

Naltrexone is one of the drugs known to help reduce the craving for alcohol. It works by blocking the pleasurable effects of alcohol, reducing the desire to drink. It’s often used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that also includes counseling and support.

Latest posts

Share this post


Leave a comment

Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Read More

Addiction & Recovery

Did you know that we are always here for you 24/7?

You don't have to try to cope with life and addiction all on your own. Reach out to us now, no matter the time of day or night, even if you're not sure what you want to do yet and just need someone to listen.

We understand what you're going through and we can help you or a loved one survive addiction and find happiness in your life again.

Fill out the form below and we will contact you soon or call us any time at (323) 307-7997.
Contact Form - Blog

Are you or a loved one struggling with addiction? We can help!

Our advisors are waiting for your call: (323) 307-7997

Ready to get Help?