Alcohol withdrawal

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Alcohol withdrawal is a group of syndromes that may occur after cessation of drinking ethanol alcohol.[1][2][3]


Autonomic hyperactivity

Withdrawal may cause hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system.


Alcohol withdrawal seizures is a "condition where seizures occur in association with ethanol abuse (alcoholism) without other identifiable causes. Seizures usually occur within the first 6-48 hours after the cessation of alcohol intake, but may occur during periods of alcohol intoxication. Single generalized tonic-clonic motor seizures are the most common subtype, however, status epilepticus may occur".[4][5]


Alcohol withdrawal delirium,formerly called delerium tremens, is an "acute organic mental disorder induced by cessation or reduction in chronic alcohol consumption. Clinical characteristics include confusion; delusions; vivid hallucinations; tremor; agitation; insomnia; and signs of autonomic hyperactivity (e.g., elevated blood pressure and heart rate, dilated pupils, and diaphoresis). This condition may occasionally be fatal."[6][7]


The revised clinical institute withdrawal assessment (CIWA-AR) can help diagnose and assess severity.[8] The CIWA-AR is available online at the links below. The CIWA-AR is a 10 item scale. The CIWA-AR was derived from the earlir CIWA-A that had 15 items.[9] The CIWA-AD is an 8 item scale and tends to score about one-half point higher than the CIWA-AR.[10]


Systematic reviews of the treatment of alcohol withdrawal by the Cochrane Collaboration
Intervention Relative risk ratio
Benzodiazepines[11] 0.16
Anticonvulsants[12] 0.57


Sample symptom triggered protocol.[13]
CIWA-Ar score Oxazepam dose
8 to 15 15 mg of oxazepam
> 15 30 mg of oxazepam

Benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan) or oxazepam (Serax) are the most commonly used drugs used to reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms. There are several approaches:

  1. One option takes into consideration the varying degrees of tolerance. In it, a standard dose of the benzodiazepine is given every half hour until light sedation is reached. Once a baseline dose is determined, the medication is tapered over the ensuing 3-10 days.
  2. Another option is to defer treatment until symptoms occur.[14][13] A non-randomized, before and after, observational study found that symptom triggered therapy was advantageous.[15]

Dosing of the benzodiazepines can be guided by the CIWA-Ar scale.[8] The scale is available online (see external links below). However, using the CIWA-Ar for patients who cannot answer questions is associated with increased complications of withdrawal.[16]

For patients who have a seizure related to alcohol withdrawal, a single dose of 2 mg lorazepam intravenously can reduce the chance of a second seizure from 24% to 3%.[17]

Regarding the choice of benzodiazepine:

  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium®) is the benzodiazepine of choice in uncomplicated alcohol withdrawal. [18]
  • Lorazepam or diazepam are available parenterally for patients who cannot safely take medications by mouth.
  • Lorazepam and oxazepam may be best in patients with cirrhosis (shorter half life).

Adrenergic antagonists

Factorial randomized controlled trial: number of treatment failures due to severe hallucinations or alcohol withdrawal.[19]
Given Not given
Propranolol Given 1 4
Not given 0 4
1. There were 15 patients in each group.

2. Not shown is the arrhythmia scores,
which were best in the groups receiving propranolol.

Randomized controlled trials have found benefit from adrenergic beta-antagonists such as atenolol[20] and propranolol[19][21] In the major trial, atenolol was given to patients without contraindications at a dose of 50 mg if the pulse was 50-79 and 100 mg if the pulse was 80 or more.[20] Deciding which patients are appropriate for atenolol based on this trial is difficult because it was conducted prior to the developement of the CIWA-Ar; however, the authors describe their patients as mild to moderate.

A factorial randomized controlled trial[19] has been misinterpreted leading to concerns that beta-blockers are associated with hallucinations.[1] However, the table at right shows that in the factorial study, the hallucinations were associated with the absence of chlordiazepoxide and not the presence of propranolol. The combination of both propranolol and chlordiazepoxide gave the best combination of reduction in withdrawal symptoms and arrhythmias.[19]

A case report shows that adrenergic beta-antagonists may remove signs of hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system thus leading to overlooking a diagnosis of delirium tremens in a chronic alcoholic with hallucinations after stopping alcohol.[22] Thus clinicians should not require the presence of sympathetic hyperactivity in diagnosing delirium tremens in a patient receiving beta-blockers.

The central alpha-2 adrenergic agonist clonidine has also been studied.[23][24] Oral clonidine at 0.2 mg three times a day (day 1 at 9 p.m.; day 2 at 9 a.m., 1 p.m., and 6 p.m.; day 3 at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.; and day 4 at 9 a.m.) showed benefit[23], whereas a trial of intravenous clonidine titrated to stop sympathetic symptoms in patients with an average CIWA-Ar of 39 had cases of hallucinations and bradycardia after an average total dose of clonidine of 8.2 mg spread over 4 days.[24].

Adrenergic antagonists should not be used alone.[25][19]


A randomized controlled trial has found benefit from carbamazepine.[26]

Other drugs

Sodium oxybate is the sodium salt of gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB). It has been studied for both acute alcohol withdrawal[27] and medium to long-term detoxification[28]. This drug enhances neurotransmission by the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) and reduces levels of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate.

Baclofen has been shown in animal studies and in small human studies to enhance detoxification[29] and maybe reduce craving[30]. This drug acts as a GABA B receptor agonist.

Some hospitals administer alcohol[31] to prevent alcohol withdrawal although this may[32] or may not[33] help.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Mayo-Smith MF, Beecher LH, Fischer TL, et al (2004). "Management of alcohol withdrawal delirium. An evidence-based practice guideline". Arch. Intern. Med. 164 (13): 1405-12. DOI:10.1001/archinte.164.13.1405. PMID 15249349. Research Blogging.
  2. Mayo-Smith MF, Beecher LH, Fischer TL, Gorelick DA, Guillaume JL, Hill A, Jara G, Kasser C, Melbourne J. (2004). Management of alcohol withdrawal delirium. An evidence-based practice guideline. (English). National Guidelines Clearinghouse. Retrieved on 2008-04-03.
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  4. Anonymous (2023), Alcohol withdrawal seizures (English). Medical Subject Headings. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  5. Ropper, Allan H.; Adams, Raymond Delacy; Victor, Maurice (1997). Principles of Neurology (in English), 6th. New York: McGraw-Hill, Health Professions Division, 1174. ISBN 0-07-067439-6. 
  6. Anonymous (2023), Alcohol withdrawal delirium (English). Medical Subject Headings. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  7. Ropper, Allan H.; Adams, Raymond Delacy; Victor, Maurice (1997). Principles of Neurology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Health Professions Division, 1175. ISBN 0-07-067439-6. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Sullivan JT, Sykora K, Schneiderman J, Naranjo CA, Sellers EM (November 1989). "Assessment of alcohol withdrawal: the revised clinical institute withdrawal assessment for alcohol scale (CIWA-Ar)". Br J Addict 84 (11): 1353–7. PMID 2597811[e] Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "pmid2597811" defined multiple times with different content
  9. Shaw JM, Kolesar GS, Sellers EM, Kaplan HL, Sandor P (November 1981). "Development of optimal treatment tactics for alcohol withdrawal. I. Assessment and effectiveness of supportive care". J Clin Psychopharmacol 1 (6): 382–7. PMID 7334148[e]
  10. Reoux JP, Oreskovich MR (2006). "A comparison of two versions of the clinical institute withdrawal assessment for alcohol: the CIWA-Ar and CIWA-AD". Am J Addict 15 (1): 85–93. DOI:10.1080/10550490500419136. PMID 16449097. Research Blogging.
  11. Ntais C, Pakos E, Kyzas P, Ioannidis JP (2005). "Benzodiazepines for alcohol withdrawal". Cochrane Database Syst Rev (3): CD005063. DOI:10.1002/14651858.CD005063.pub2. PMID 16034964. Research Blogging.
  12. Polycarpou A, Papanikolaou P, Ioannidis JP, Contopoulos-Ioannidis DG (2005). "Anticonvulsants for alcohol withdrawal". Cochrane Database Syst Rev (3): CD005064. DOI:10.1002/14651858.CD005064.pub2. PMID 16034965. Research Blogging.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Daeppen JB, Gache P, Landry U, et al (2002). "Symptom-triggered vs fixed-schedule doses of benzodiazepine for alcohol withdrawal: a randomized treatment trial". Arch. Intern. Med. 162 (10): 1117-21. PMID 12020181[e]
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  33. Weinberg JA, Magnotti LJ, Fischer PE, et al (January 2008). "Comparison of intravenous ethanol versus diazepam for alcohol withdrawal prophylaxis in the trauma ICU: results of a randomized trial". J Trauma 64 (1): 99–104. DOI:10.1097/TA.0b013e31815eb12a. PMID 18188105. Research Blogging.