Medical Treatment for Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

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When you stop drinking, you may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. You can seek medical treatment that can relieve these. Your healthcare provider will use medications to help you manage aspects of your withdrawal.

Common Mild to Moderate Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be divided into mild, moderate, or severe, with the majority of withdrawal symptoms being mild to moderate. When you stop drinking alcohol, you may be agitated, experience trembling, have no appetite, and have trouble sleeping.

With mild and moderate symptoms, you may be treated on an outpatient basis. If you have severe withdrawal symptoms, inpatient treatment is needed.

Outpatient Treatment for Mild to Moderate Withdrawal Symptoms

The treatment you receive will be based on the symptoms you are experiencing. A several day course of anti-anxiety medication is typical for mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms. You'll be scheduled for follow-up and rehabilitation treatment.

It's important that you seek immediate medical attention if your withdrawal symptoms become severe. While going through these first days of withdrawal, it is best to be looked after by a friend or family member for safety.

Benzodiazepines

Patients are usually given one of the benzodiazepine anti-anxiety drugs, such as Valium (diazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), Librium (chlordiazepoxide), and Serax (oxazepam). They work to treat the agitation that patients experience during withdrawal and to prevent progression to more serious withdrawal symptoms such as delirium tremens and the risk of seizures.

The long-acting benzodiazepines with active metabolites (diazepam or chlordiazepoxide) are often used for a smoother clinical course. But if you have liver damage, shorter half-life benzodiazepines like lorazepam or oxazepam may be given because they have don't have active metabolites and are less likely to cause prolonged sedation in the face of impaired metabolism.

Common side effects of benzodiazepines include daytime drowsiness. They can make respiratory problems worse. They can interact with other medications and are very dangerous when they are used in combination with alcohol, which is a concern in a person who might resume drinking.

Side effects may be worse in older people. They can cause birth defects, so they should not be used by pregnant women. Benzodiazepines can lose effectiveness over time and patients can become dependent on them. If you take them at high enough doses for a long period of time, you might experience withdrawal symptoms if they are abruptly discontinued.

Specific Treatment for Severe Symptoms

The following treatments are commonly used for more severe symptoms.

Treating Delirium Tremens

A small percentage of those undergoing withdrawal may experience delirium tremens (DTs). This is a syndrome that affects mental status and autonomic stability, which can be very dangerous and potentially fatal if not treated adequately. Symptomatic patients are usually given intravenous anti-anxiety medications and their cardiac and medical status are managed aggressively.

Treating Seizures

Seizures are usually self-limited and treated with a benzodiazepine. Anticonvulsants (anti-epileptic drugs) may also be used.

Psychosis

Haldol (haloperidol) or similar medications might be given if the person undergoing withdrawal is having hallucinations or significant agitation.

Seeking Help for Alcohol Withdrawal

It's wise to get medical support for your withdrawal symptoms. While it can be difficult to be open with your health care provider, it is essential to prevent more severe symptoms and to give you a better chance of succeeding in quitting alcohol.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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