The discomfort of alcohol withdrawal is often one of the first challenges people with alcohol use disorder face on the road to addiction recovery.
To help with this, some detox programs may provide medication, such as sedatives. This can help to alleviate moderate symptoms, and both prevent and treat severe withdrawal.
Why Is Medication Used During Alcohol Detox?
Medicine for withdrawal may be necessary in order to treat severe symptoms that can develop during the first 72 hours of alcohol withdrawal syndrome during detoxification.
Medication may be provided to prevent or treat, for instance, delirium tremens (DTs), also known as alcohol withdrawal delirium.
This is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that can cause hallucinations, very high body temperature, hypertension, tachycardia (fast heart rate), and seizures.
Medications Used To Treat Severe Alcohol Withdrawal
Medication during alcohol detox may be provided to ease symptoms of mild withdrawal, such as nausea, or serious side effects such as seizures.
Here are common medications for treatment during alcohol detox:
Benzodiazepines are a type of sedative. They can treat withdrawal seizures, convulsions, disorientation, and reduce agitation during alcohol detox.
Common benzodiazepines for alcohol detox include:
- diazepam (Valium)
- lorazepam (Ativan)
- chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
Benzodiazepines are the preferred type of sedative for severe withdrawal. In addition to their ability to help treat and prevent seizures, they can also help alleviate delirium.
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Anticonvulsant medications such as gabapentin (Neurontin) and carbamazepine (Tegretol) may be given to relieve convulsions, muscle twitching, dizziness, and double vision during detox.
Pain And Fever Medicine
Mild to moderate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, such as upset stomach, sweating, and fever may be relieved through the use of pain relievers and medications to reduce body temperature.
Clonidine, a hyperintensive medication, may also be given to treat high blood pressure, as well as relieve symptoms such as nausea, sweating, hot flashes, and restlessness.
Alcohol Use Disorder Medications
Treatment plans for alcohol use disorder, also known as alcohol addiction, may involve the use of certain medications, some of which can help relieve alcohol withdrawal.
Alcohol use disorder medications include:</strong.
- acamprosate (Campral): This can help relieve withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, and depressed mood.
- naltrexone (Revia): This can be taken after detox to ease alcohol cravings and prevent euphoria from alcohol.
- disulfiram (Antabuse): This medication can deter drinking by causing physical sickness if alcohol is consumed.
Alcohol dependence medications are generally given after acute detoxification, or after at least five days of abstinence from alcohol.
Other Medications For Alcohol Detox
In addition to the more common medications, other medications may also be administered to treat specific symptoms of withdrawal, including seizures, severe agitation, and delirium.
Other medications that may be given during alcohol detox:
- beta blockers
Safety during detox is the utmost concern. Before administering medications during detox, any and all risk factors for adverse reactions will be considered by medical professionals.
Are There Risks To Medication Use During Alcohol Detox?
All medications administered during alcohol detox are provided only if the perceived benefits outweigh potential risks. This determination can be made by a healthcare provider.
Considerations for medication use during detox include:
- recent use of illicit drugs
- drug allergies
- past adverse drug reactions
- time elapsed since last drink
- history of drug abuse or addiction
- other mental health or medical conditions
Medical professionals within detox programs will generally ask after your substance use history, and any other health conditions you have, in order to develop a suitable treatment plan for detox.
Alternatives To Medication During Alcohol Detox
The use of medication to alleviate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the severity of withdrawal and the symptoms experienced.
Some symptoms of mild withdrawal may not require medication. Detox programs that do not use medication to treat withdrawal are often referred to as social detox programs.
What a social detox program for mild alcohol withdrawal can offer:
- regular check-ins with a clinician
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- nutritional supplements (e.g. vitamins)
- general supportive care
Social detox programs may be suitable for people with mild substance use issues, those who do not have a clinical substance use disorder, and those who are at low risk for severe withdrawal.
Do You Need Medication During Alcohol Detox?
Alternatives to medication for alcohol detox may not be suitable for everyone. Severe symptoms, such as seizures, can be life-threatening and may require medical treatment.
Severe withdrawal is a higher risk for people who:
- have a history of excessive alcohol consumption
- have been drinking alcohol heavily for years
- have co-occurring mental health or medical conditions
- are medically unstable
- are over the age of 50
Any concerns about the use of medication during detox can be discussed with a healthcare provider.
Alcohol Detox Medication FAQs
Find answers to frequently asked questions about medications given during alcohol detoxification.
❓ Is There A Pill That Makes You Sick If You Drink Alcohol?
✔️ Disulfiram (Antabuse) is an alcohol antagonist that can cause physical sickness if a person drinks alcohol while taking it.
Disulfiram is not provided during detox. This medication may be prescribed after acute alcohol withdrawal or for those in the early stages of alcohol recovery.
❓ How Long Does The Alcohol Detox Medication Take To Work?
✔️ Medications provided for the treatment of alcohol withdrawal will generally kick in fairly quickly, depending on how it’s administered and the type of medication given.
Symptom relief may be felt anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours after the medicine is provided.
❓ Where Do You Get Alcohol Detox Medications?
✔️ Medications for detox may be offered within inpatient detox programs (medical detox) or be acquired through a prescription from a doctor in an outpatient detox program.
❓ Can You Take Medications For Alcohol Detox At Home?
✔️ Some medications may be acquired by prescription or over-the-counter for mild symptoms of withdrawal. Tylenol, for instance, many help with mild pain or fever.
Outpatient detox programs, or your doctor, may be able to offer guidance on whether detoxing on an outpatient level is right for you and what an outpatient detox plan might look like.
❓ What Are The Benefits Of Medication For Alcohol Detox?
✔️ Medication during detox can serve a number of purposes. First and foremost, they may help prevent or treat life-threatening effects of alcohol withdrawal, such as seizures.
Medication may also help by:
- relieving physical discomfort
- easing anxiety and agitation
- shortening the duration of withdrawal
- preventing severe withdrawal
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Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- American Family Physician — Outpatient Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — MAT Medications, Counseling,and Related Conditions
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Alcohol withdrawal
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: NCBI Bookshelf — Alcohol Withdrawal - StatPearls