Comparison of phenobarbital-adjunct versus benzodiazepine-only approach for alcohol withdrawal syndrome in the ED

Shannon M. Sullivan, Brittney N. Dewey, Daniel H. Jarrell, Nina Vadiei, Asad E Patanwala

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Objectives: To compare a phenobarbital-adjunct versus benzodiazepine-only approach for the management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome in the emergency department (ED) with regard to the need for intensive care unit (ICU) admission, severity of symptoms on ED discharge, and complications. Methods: This was a retrospective cohort study conducted in two academic EDs in the United States. Adult patients seen in the ED with a diagnosis of alcohol withdrawal syndrome were included. Patients were categorized into two groups based on whether phenobarbital was administered in the ED: 1) phenobarbital group (with or without benzodiazepines) or 2) non-phenobarbital group. The primary outcome measure was the need for ICU admission. Secondary outcomes included Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol (CIWA-Ar) scores at ED discharge, and complications. Complications were a composite of death, need for intubation, hypotension or vasopressor use, seizures, and hospital acquired pneumonia. Results: The study cohort included 209 patients (phenobarbital = 97, non-phenobarbital = 112). The mean (standard deviation) age was 49 (12) years and 85% (n = 178) were male. A similar proportion of patients in the phenobarbital (14%, n = 14) and non-phenobarbital (11%, n = 12) groups required ICU admission (p = 0.529). The median CIWA-Ar score on ED discharge was 7 (IQR 4–12) points in the phenobarbital group and 7 (IQR 4–14) points in the non-phenobarbital group (p = 0.752). The occurrence of complications was also similar in the phenobarbital (9%, n = 9) and non-phenobarbital groups (11%, n = 10). Conclusion: Adjunctive phenobarbital use in the ED for alcohol withdrawal syndrome did not result in decreased ICU admission, severity of symptoms, or complications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1313-1316
Number of pages4
JournalAmerican Journal of Emergency Medicine
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2019


  • Alcohol withdrawal delirium
  • Emergency service hospital
  • Phenobarbital

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Emergency Medicine


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