How Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Are Treated

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Approximately 95 percent of people who quit drinking alcohol experience mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms and can usually be treated by healthcare providers on an outpatient basis, but five percent experience severe withdrawal symptoms and must be treated in a hospital or a facility that specializes in detoxification.

If you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. You can contact your family physician or healthcare provider, the local emergency room or urgent care center so that they can do an assessment of the severity of your withdrawal symptoms.

Take the Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Quiz to see if your symptoms are mild, moderate, or severe.

Outpatient Treatment

If you are having only mild to moderate symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend outpatient treatment. During this time, you can expect treatment to include sedative drugs that can help ease your withdrawal symptoms.

Your provider will perform blood tests and other tests to see if you have medical problems related to alcohol use. You may also be referred to counseling for long-term issues of alcoholism.

Inpatient Treatment

If you are experiencing moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend inpatient treatment. The goals are to treat your immediate withdrawal symptoms, prevent complications, and begin long-term preventative therapy. 

  • Observation: If you are being treated for withdrawal you usually will have to stay at the hospital for observation at least initially. This is to allow the monitoring of your heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and blood pressure, as well as fluids and electrolytes (chemicals in the body such as sodium and potassium).
  • Sedation: If you are severely alcohol-dependent, your symptoms can progress rapidly and may quickly become life-threatening. You may require drugs that depress the central nervous system (such as sedatives) to reduce your symptoms. Often they are given in moderately large doses.
  • Tranquilizers: Your treatment may require maintenance of a moderately sedated state for a week or more until your withdrawal is complete. A class of medications known as benzodiazepines (tranquilizers such as Valium) is often useful in reducing a range of symptoms.
  • Drying Out. A "drying out" period may be appropriate for you. No alcohol is allowed during this time. Your health care provider will watch you closely for signs of delirium tremens.
  • Hallucinations Treated: Hallucinations that occur without other symptoms or complications are uncommon. If you experience them, you will be treated with hospitalization and antipsychotic medications as needed.
  • Medical Conditions Tested: You will be tested and treated for other medical problems associated with the use of alcohol as necessary. These may include disorders such as alcoholic liver disease, blood clotting disorders, alcoholic neuropathy, heart disorders (such as alcoholic cardiomyopathy), chronic brain syndromes (such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome), and malnutrition.

Follow-Up for Recovery

Rehabilitation for alcoholism is often recommended. This may include social support groups, medications, and behavior therapy.

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Article Sources

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  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. Alcohol Withdrawal. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.