Alcohol withdrawal syndrome in medical patients

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Many medications are used adjunctively in the acute setting, both for symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome and for agitation.


No clinical trial has yet examined haloperidol monotherapy in patients with alcohol withdrawal syndrome in either general medical units or intensive care units. Yet haloperidol remains important and is recommended as an adjunct therapy for agitation.23,32 Dosing of haloperidol in protocols for surgical patients ranged from 2 to 5 mg intravenously every 0.5 to 2 hours, with a maximum dosage of 0.5 mg per kg per 24 hours.7,33

Alpha-2 agonists

Alpha-2 agonists are thought to reduce sympathetic overdrive and the autonomic symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal syndrome, and these agents (primarily clonidine) have been studied in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal syndrome.34,35

Clonidine. In a Swedish study,34 26 men ages 20 to 55 who presented with the tremor, sweating, dysphoria, tension, anxiety, and tachycardia associated with alcohol withdrawal syndrome received clonidine 4 µg per kg twice daily or carbamazepine 200 mg three to four times daily in addition to an antiepileptic. Adjunctive use of a benzodiazepine was allowed at night in both groups. No statistically significant difference in symptom reduction was noted between the two groups, and there was no difference in total benzodiazepine use.

Dexmedetomidine, given intravenously, has been tested as an adjunct to benzodiazepine treatment in severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome. It has been shown to decrease the amount of total benzodiazepine needed compared with benzodiazepine therapy alone, but no differences have been seen in length of hospital stay.36–39 However, research on this drug so far is limited to ICU patients.


Beta-blockers have been used in inpatients with alcohol withdrawal syndrome to reduce heart rate and potentially reduce alcohol craving. However, the data are limited and conflicting.

Atenolol 50 to 100 mg daily, in a study in 120 patients, reduced length of stay (4 vs 5 days), reduced benzodiazepine use, and improved vital signs and behavior compared with placebo.40

Propranolol 40 mg every 6 hours reduced arrhythmias but increased hallucinations when used alone in a study in 47 patients.41 When used in combination with chlordiazepoxide, no benefit was seen in arrhythmia reduction.41

Barbiturates and other antiepileptics

Data continue to emerge on antiepileptics as both monotherapy and adjunctive therapy for alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Barbiturates as monotherapy were largely replaced by benzodiazepines in view of the narrow therapeutic index of barbiturates and their full agonist effect on the GABA receptor complex. However, phenobarbital has been evaluated in patients presenting with severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome or resistant alcohol withdrawal (ie, symptoms despite large or repeated doses of benzodiazepines) as an adjunct to benzodiazepines.42,43

In addition, a newer trial44 involved giving a single dose of phenobarbital in the emergency department in combination with a CIWA-Ar–based benzodiazepine protocol, compared with the benzodiazepine protocol alone. The group that received phenobarbital had fewer ICU admissions; its evaluation is ongoing.

The three other medications with the most data are carbamazepine, valproic acid, and gabapentin.45,46 However, the studies were small and the benefit was modest. Although these agents are possible alternatives in protracted alcohol withdrawal syndrome, no definite conclusion can be made regarding their place in therapy.46


Which benzodiazepine to use?

No specific benzodiazepine is recommended, but studies best support the long-acting drug chlordiazepoxide

No specific benzodiazepine is recommended over the others for managing alcohol withdrawal syndrome, but studies best support the long-acting agent chlordiazepoxide.16,17,20 Other benzodiazepines such as lorazepam and oxazepam have proved to be beneficial, but drugs should be selected on the basis of patient characteristics and drug metabolism.18,19,27

Patients with severe liver dysfunction and the elderly may have slower oxidative metabolism, so the effects of medications that are primarily oxidized, such as chlordiazepoxide and diazepam, may be prolonged. Therefore, lorazepam and oxazepam would be preferred in these groups.47 While most patients with alcohol withdrawal syndrome and liver dysfunction do not have advanced cirrhosis, we recommend liver function testing (serum aspartate aminotransferase, alanine aminotransferase, and alkaline phosphatase levels) and screening for liver disease, given the drug metabolism and package insert caution for use in those with impaired hepatic function.48

Patients with end-stage renal disease (stage 5 chronic kidney disease) or acute kidney injury should not receive parenteral diazepam or lorazepam. The rationale is the potential accumulation of propylene glycol, the solvent used in these formulations.

In the elderly, the Beers list of drugs to avoid in older adults includes benzodiazepines, not differentiating individual benzodiazepines in terms of risk.49 However, chlordiazepoxide may be preferable to diazepam due to its shorter parent half-life and lower lipophilicity.27 Few studies have been done using benzodiazepines in elderly patients with alcohol withdrawal syndrome, but those published have shown either equivalent dosing required compared with younger patients or more severe withdrawal for which they received greater amounts of chlordiazepoxide.9,12 Lorazepam and oxazepam have less potential to accumulate in the elderly compared with the nonelderly due to the drugs’ metabolic profiles; lorazepam is the preferred agent because of its faster onset of action.47 Ultimately, the choice of benzodiazepine in elderly patients with alcohol withdrawal syndrome should be based on patient-specific characteristics.

How should benzodiazepines be dosed?

While the CIWA-Ar thresholds and subsequent dosing of benzodiazepines varied in different studies, we recommend starting benzodiazepine therapy at a CIWA-Ar score of 8 or higher, with subsequent dosing based on score reassessment. Starting doses of benzodiazepines should be chlordiazepoxide 25 to 50 mg, lorazepam 1 to 2 mg, or oxazepam 15 mg.16–20

Subsequent doses should be titrated upward, increasing by 1.5 to 2 times the previous dose and monitored at least every 1 to 2 hours after dose adjustments. Once a patient is stable and the CIWA-Ar score is less than 8, monitoring intervals can be extended to every 4 to 8 hours. If the CIWA-Ar score is more than 20, studies suggest the need for patient reevaluation for transfer to the ICU; however, some health systems have a lower threshold for this intervention.7,14,50

Dosing algorithms and CIWA-Ar goals may vary slightly from institution to institution, but it has been shown that symptom-triggered therapy works best when hospitals have a protocol for it and staff are adequately trained to assess patients with alcohol withdrawal syndrome.7,50,51 Suggestions for dose ranges and symptom-triggered therapy are shown in Table 5.

In case of benzodiazepine overdose or potential benzodiazepine-induced delirium, flumazenil could be considered.52

Patients who should not receive symptom-triggered therapy include immediate postoperative patients in whom clinicians cannot properly assess withdrawal symptoms and patients with a history of DTs.51 While controversy exists regarding the use of symptom-triggered therapy in patients with complicated medical comorbidities, there are data to support symptom-triggered therapy in some ICU patients, as it has resulted in less benzodiazepine use and reduced mechanical ventilation.53,54

There are limited data to support phenobarbital in treating resistant alcohol withdrawal syndrome, either alone or concurrently with benzodiazepines, in escalating doses ranging from 65 to 260 mg, with a maximum daily dose of 520 mg.42,55,56


For patients exhibiting agitation despite benzodiazepine therapy, giving haloperidol adjunctively can be beneficial.

Haloperidol can be used in medical patients as an adjunctive therapy for agitation, but caution is advised because of the potential for a lowering of the seizure threshold, extrapyramidal effects, and risk of QTc prolongation leading to arrhythmias. Patients considered at highest risk for torsades de pointes may have a QTc of 500 msec or greater.57

Patients should also be screened for factors that have been shown to be independent predictors of QTc prolongation (female sex, diagnosis of myocardial infarction, septic shock or left ventricular dysfunction, other QT-prolonging drugs, age > 68, baseline QTc ≥ 450 msec, and hypokalemia).58 If combined predictors have been identified, it is recommended that haloperidol be avoided.

If haloperidol is to be given, a baseline electrocardiogram and electrolyte panel should be obtained, with daily electrocardiograms thereafter, as well as ongoing review of the patient’s medications to minimize drug interactions that could further increase the risk for QTc prolongation.

Suggested haloperidol dosing is 2 to 5 mg intravenously every 0.5 to 2 hours with a maximum dose of 0.5 mg/kg/24 hours.8,33 A maximum of 35 mg of intravenous haloperidol should be used in a 24-hour period to avoid QTc prolongation.57

Antihypertensive therapy

Many patients receive symptomatic relief of autonomic hyperreactivity with benzodiazepines. However, some may require additional antihypertensive therapy for cardiac adrenergic symptoms (hypertension, tachycardia) if symptoms do not resolve by treating other medical problems commonly seen in patients with alcohol withdrawal syndrome, such as dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.7

Published protocols suggest giving clonidine 0.1 mg orally every hour up to three times as needed until systolic blood pressure is less than 140 mm Hg (less than 160 mm Hg if the patient is over age 60) and diastolic pressure is less than 90 mm Hg.51 Once the patient is stabilized, the dosing can be scheduled to a maximum of 2.4 mg daily.59 However, we believe that the use of clonidine should be restricted to patients who have a substantial increase in blood pressure over baseline or are nearing a hypertensive urgency or emergency (pressures > 180/120 mm Hg) and should not be used to treat other general symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal syndrome.42

In addition, based on limited evidence, we recommend using beta-blockers only in patients with symptomatic tachycardia or as an adjunct in hypertension management.40,41

Therapies to avoid in acutely ill medical patients

Ethanol is not recommended. Instead, intravenous benzodiazepines should be given in patients presenting with severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Antiepileptics, including valproic acid, carbamazepine, and pregabalin, lack benefit in these patients either as monotherapy or as adjunctive therapy and so are not recommended.45,60–62

Magnesium supplementation (in patients with normal serum magnesium levels) should not be given, as no clinical benefit has been shown.63

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