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Medications to Treat Alcohol Withdrawal

When are Medications Used in Alcohol Addiction Treatment?

Detoxing from alcohol is often the first phase of the rehabilitation process for those looking to recover from alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

When chronic or excessive alcohol use leads to significant physical dependence, that person may experience withdrawal symptoms when he or she decides to quit drinking.1 

For those at risk of severe alcohol withdrawal, doctors may prescribe certain medications to alleviate discomfort, stop the progression or worsening of symptoms, and minimize the likelihood of further withdrawal complications.2  Read on to learn more about the treatment of alcohol withdrawal and some of the alcohol withdrawal syndrome medication that is used to help ease the symptoms felt.

Alcohol Withdrawal Treatment Medications

In significantly severe cases of alcohol withdrawal, detoxification professionals may administer medications to help with the easing of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Although some withdrawal episodes may appear to not need pharmacological intervention, foregoing medications may, in some cases, have adverse consequences for any future withdrawal episodes.2 

The failure to adequately manage withdrawal with medications with could result in a type of neurotoxicity which, by way of a phenomenon “kindling”, could put patients at a greater risk of seizures following repeated withdrawal episodes.2

Acute Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal may range from mild to physically dangerous, with some relatively mild symptoms arising within 8 hours after the last drink.1

Depending on the magnitude of physical dependence, additional symptoms may continue to arise beyond 24 hours, with some potentially severe effects emerging 2 to 4 days after abstinence.3

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may include: 1,3

  • Insomnia. 
  • Irritability.  
  • Anxiety.  
  • Agitation.  
  • Mood swings.  
  • Depression.  
  • Fatigue.  
  • Nausea or vomiting.  
  • Sweating.  
  • Increased heart rate. 
  • High blood pressure. 
  • Hand tremor. 
  • Seizures (in rarer cases, severe alcohol withdrawal is associated with a syndrome known as delirium tremens, or DTs).  

The Dangers of Delirium Tremens (DT)

In some instances of pronounced alcohol dependence and severe accompanying withdrawal, a person may develop a neurological syndrome called delirium tremens (DTs) that is characterized autonomic nervous system excitation and significant changes in mental status.5

Though relatively rare, DTs are most commonly seen in those with a history of alcohol withdrawal and who’ve abused alcohol for more than 10 years, or drink daily, for months on end.5

Typically, DTs are only present in around 5% of patients experiencing withdrawal.2 Symptoms may include:5 

  • Hallucinations. 
  • Agitation. 
  • Severe confusion or disorientation.
  • Seizures. 

If you suspect you or someone you know is experiencing this form of withdrawal, seek medical attention immediately. Delirium tremens may prove highly dangerous and even life-threatening if left untreated.