Treatment Setting

The treatment setting is primarily determined by the severity of the withdrawal symptoms present.11 In patients presenting with mild to moderate withdrawal, outpatient detoxification is considered safe and effective.11,17 Although outpatient follow-up recommendations include seeing the patient daily until symptoms subside, treatment in this environment is cost effective, less burdensome on acute care hospitals, and minimizes interruptions on the patient’s personal life.11,17 An inpatient setting is warranted for patients who experience seizures or DTs or have severe withdrawal symptoms, abnormal laboratory results, or chronic medical or psychiatric conditions.8,17

Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Patients at risk of developing alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) may be provided with preventative pharmacotherapy with benzodiazepines when attempting to reduce or stop alcohol intake, according to the 2020 ASAM guidelines on AWS. Benzodiazepines are first-line treatment for AWS prophylaxis because of their effectiveness in reducing the signs and symptoms of withdrawal, such as the incidence of seizure and delirium.8

Mild Symptoms

For patients experiencing mild withdrawal symptoms (eg, CIWA-Ar score <8) who are at minimal risk of developing severe symptoms or complications of alcohol withdrawal, the ASAM recommends treatment with pharmacotherapy or supportive care alone. Carbamazepine or gabapentin are appropriate pharmacologic treatments for mild symptoms. For patients with mild symptoms who are at risk of developing new or worsening withdrawal while away from the treatment setting, the ASAM recommends use of benzodiazepines, carbamazepine, or gabapentin.8

Moderate Symptoms

Patients with moderate symptoms (eg, CIWA-Ar scores 8-20) should be treated with pharmacotherapy with benzodiazepines being the first-line treatment; carbamazepine or gabapentin are appropriate alternative therapies. Benzodiazepine may be used in combination with carbamazepine, gabapentin, or valproic acid (in patients without liver disease or childbearing potential).8

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Severe Symptoms

Patients with severe, but not complicated, withdrawal symptoms (eg, CIWA-Ar ≥20) should be treated with benzodiazepines or, as an alternative, phenobarbital (only use if the clinician is experienced with its use). Other options for patients with contraindications to benzodiazepine use include carbamazepine or gabapentin. Adjunctive agents may be used (eg, carbamazepine, gabapentin, and valproic acid).8

Risk for prolonged benzodiazepine use and misuse include memory impairment, psychomotor retardation, depression, and emotional anesthesia in addition to physiologic dependence.17 Because of the high addiction risk, alternative agents such as carbamazepine and gabapentin have less abuse potential, less toxicity, less sedation, and have demonstrated efficacy in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal syndrome.8

For ongoing management of AUD, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense recommends use of acamprosate, disulfiram, naltrexone (extended release), and/or topiramate (off-label) for the initial management of AUD.19 The American Psychiatric Association recommends first-line treatment of AUD with acamprosate and naltrexone, and use of disulfiram, gabapentin (off-label), and topiramate as second-line options.20

Gabapentin is beneficial for treating withdrawal symptoms in patients who will benefit from ongoing gabapentin use for treatment of AUD, according to the ASAM. Gabapentin (an analog of GABA) is not thought to modulate GABA receptors. Rather it is believed to enhance GABA activity or convert to GABA itself.21 Gabapentin is believed to normalize stress-induced GABA activation in the brain that is associated with alcohol dependence.22

Adjunctive therapies with supplemental thiamine, folate, and IV fluids are useful in correcting nutritional and electrolyte abnormalities associated with alcohol withdrawal syndrome symptoms. Folic acid 1 mg daily is recommended and thiamine 100 mg daily is shown to lower the risk of Wernicke encephalopathy.


The approach to monitoring during treatment should be individualized to each patient and influenced by symptom severity. Most patients are evaluated daily until symptoms begin to decrease and medication dose is reduced.11 The method or tool used to initially evaluate symptoms and their severity should be consistently used throughout follow-up.

Although each patient’s road to recovery is different, symptoms should begin to resolve within a week. Upon completion of treatment, a patient may need to be referred to a long-term outpatient facility, addiction specialist, or inpatient treatment facility for AUD.


The ASAM recommends use of pharmacologic agents for patients at risk of developing severe or complicated withdrawal symptoms as well as those with at least moderate alcohol withdrawal. Patient education on the benefits and risks of each therapy is essential to providing informed consent and shared decision-making.

Christian Lyle, PA-C, graduated from Augusta University physician assistant program in 2020 and is working in gastroenterology in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia.


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This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor