Management of alcohol withdrawal

B. L. Erstad, C. L. Cotugno

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


The diagnosis, evaluation and assessment, supportive care, and pharmacologic treatment of acute alcohol withdrawal are reviewed. Patients in alcohol withdrawal have decreased or stopped their heavy, prolonged ingestion of alcohol and have subsequently begun to have at least two of the following symptoms: autonomic hyperactivity, tremor, nausea or vomiting, hallucinations, psychomotor agitation, anxiety, and grand real seizures. Evaluation of the patient at risk for alcohol withdrawal should include a complete history and physical examination; laboratory tests are often indicated. The patient's progress should be assessed before, during, and after therapy, preferably with a validated instrument. After the initial evaluation and assessment but before the administration of dextrose- containing solutions, a 100-mg dose of thiamine hydrochloride should be given by i.m. or i.v. injection. Routine supplementation with calcium, magnesium, and phosphate is questionable. The need for fluid and electrolyte administration varies depending on losses. Most patients in alcohol withdrawal can be managed with supportive care alone, but for more severe or complicated withdrawal, pharmacologic therapy may be necessary. Benzodiazepines, especially diazepam and chlordiazepoxide, are the drugs of choice. Barbiturates, β-blockers, and antipsychotics are generally not recommended as first-line therapy. Several drugs in other classes, including carbamazepine and clonidine, have been shown to be about as effective as benzodiazepines in a few studies, but the studies were small, the patients were usually in mild withdrawal, and validated instruments for assessing withdrawal were often not used. Some agents, such as β-blockers, may play a role as adjuncts to, not replacements for, benzodiazepine therapy. For patients in alcohol withdrawal who do not respond to supportive care, benzodiazepines are the treatment of choice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)697-709
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Journal of Health-System Pharmacy
Issue number7
StatePublished - 1995


  • Alcohol withdrawal delirium
  • Alcoholism
  • Alcohols, ethyl
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Carbamazepine
  • Clonidine
  • Drug withdrawal
  • Replacement solutions
  • Sympatholytic agents
  • Thiamine hydrochloride
  • Toxicity
  • Vitamins

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Health Policy


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