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What Medications are Used to Treat Alcohol Withdrawal? by Rehab Recovery Centers

If you have a drinking problem, you may have noticed the various damaging ways that alcohol abuse has affected your body. One of the key characteristics of an alcohol use disorder is the development of physical dependence on alcohol. You see, the more often you drink, the more your body gets used to having alcohol in your system. Eventually, your brain and body will require alcohol to function “normally.”

Once dependence develops, you will experience symptoms of withdrawal if you abruptly stop drinking. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, but even mild symptoms can be so uncomfortable that many people would rather drink than proceed with detoxification.

The good news is alcohol detox centers can prescribe medications that alleviate symptoms of withdrawal and calm down your central nervous system. Learning about the medications used to treat alcohol withdrawal can help you prepare for detox and make educated decisions about your treatment.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may begin as soon as 6-10 hours after your last drink. Depending on the severity of your alcohol use disorder, symptoms can last up to two weeks and may vary in intensity.

Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Shaky hands
  • Tremors
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • High blood pressure
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Delusions
  • Confusion
  • Racing heart
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Heavy sweating

A small percent (less than 5%) of people who are addicted to alcohol will experience delirium tremens, the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal characterized by vivid hallucinations and extreme delusions. In severe cases, withdrawal can be life-threatening.

Medications for Alcohol Withdrawal

Symptoms of withdrawal can range from mild to severe, but they can change rapidly and be extremely unpredictable. As a result, medical detox centers manage alcohol withdrawal using medications that help decrease activity in the central nervous system (CNS).

The most commonly used medications for alcohol withdrawal include:

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are a class of medications used to treat anxiety, panic, and certain types of seizures. These medications work by increasing the reuptake of GABA in the brain–a neurotransmitter that is also affected by alcohol abuse.

Some benzodiazepines have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome. These include:

  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Oxazepam (Serax)
  • Clorazepate (Tranxene)

Benzodiazepines are highly effective at reducing the severity of alcohol withdrawal, promoting sleep, and preventing seizures. As a result, they are often the first line of treatment during detox.

Patients may start on a high dose of benzodiazepines and slowly be tapered down until their symptoms of withdrawal are mild.

Anticonvulsants

During severe withdrawal, some patients may experience tremors or seizures. If these can’t be managed with benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants may be necessary. Anticonvulsant medications that are often used to treat alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Gabapentin (Neurontin)
  • Oxcarbazepine (Trileptal)
  • Carbamazepine (Tegretol)
  • Valproic Acid (Depakene)

These medications can be used alongside or in replacement of benzodiazepines as needed.

Barbiturates

Barbiturates are a class of medications that may be used when benzodiazepines don’t work. These medications reduce activity in the central nervous system to soothe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

Other Alcohol Withdrawal Medications

While benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, and barbiturates are the most commonly prescribed medications for alcohol withdrawal, others may be used on a case-by-case basis. These include:

  • Antipsychotics to treat symptoms of delirium or agitation
  • Antihypertensives (blood pressure medications) like clonidine can reduce anxiety symptoms and lower high blood pressure
  • Beta-blockers like propranolol can be given to reduce adrenergic symptoms and anxiety
  • Baclofen is a muscle relaxer and GABA-B receptor that has demonstrated promise in treating alcohol withdrawal syndrome

Detox Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

All of these medications are available by prescription only, so you have to see a doctor or detox in a medical facility in order to utilize them. However, you shouldn’t try to detox from alcohol on your own, anyway. Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous and unpredictable. You may feel sick one moment, but begin having seizures the next. The safest way to detox and prevent life-threatening symptoms is to do so under medical guidance.

At an alcohol detox facility, you will be under 24-hour medical and psychiatric care. Doctors can prescribe medications to help you cope with alcohol withdrawal and nurses can monitor your symptoms to ensure your safety and comfort. Therapeutic group processing sessions and individual therapy may be available, as well.

Most people spend up to two weeks in an alcohol detox facility before transitioning to a residential or outpatient alcohol treatment program. Before you leave detox, a substance abuse counselor will make sure you have treatment lined up so you don’t return back to drinking as soon as you leave the facility.

Find an Alcohol Detox and Rehab Center Near You

Rehab Recovery Centers has an extensive directory of the highest-rated alcohol rehab centers in the United States. We also have a team of qualified admissions counselors who are available 24/7 to answer your call, verify your insurance, and help you decide which alcoholism treatment center is right for you. All calls are risk-free and confidential.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcoholism and ready to begin your recovery journey, please contact us today.

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