Alcohol withdrawal can be extremely unpleasant (see here for an overview). Symptoms vary from person to person, but most people will experience some negative symptoms of alcohol withdrawal if they try to stop drinking after long-term use.
Mild to moderate symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, rapid heart rate, abnormal movements, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include hallucinations, fever, and convulsions (known as DT's or delirium tremens). Most people undergoing alcohol detox do not require hospitalization, but in severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary (1).
Since their introduction in the 1960s, benzodiazepines have been the drug of choice for treating severe cases of alcohol withdrawal. Benzodiazepines, or benzos for short, are a class of psychoactive drugs that work to slow down the central nervous system by activating GABA receptors. This provides a variety of useful tranquilizing effects. Aside from relieving symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, benzodiazepines are also commonly prescribed to treat insomnia, muscle spasms, involuntary movement disorders, anxiety disorders, and convulsive disorders.
The most common regimen for treating alcohol withdrawal includes three days of long-acting benzodiazepines on a fixed schedule with additional medication available “as needed.” (2)
The two most commonly prescribed benzos are chlordiazepoxide and diazepam. Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) is preferred for its superior anticonvulsant capabilities while diazepam (Valium) is preferred for its safety against overdose with alcohol. Short-acting benzos like oxazepam and lorazepam are less frequently used for treating alcohol withdrawal (1).
Compared to other drugs, benzos are the safest and most effective method for treating difficult alcohol withdrawal. However, benzodiazepines do come with their own potential for dependence and abuse. Ironically, symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal are quite similar to those of alcohol withdrawal. Tapering off dosage is the best way to prevent serious withdrawal symptoms. To avoid such complications, benzodiazepines are only recommended for short-term treatment of alcohol withdrawal.
In short: Benzos can be very useful for helping long-term alcoholics deal with the difficult withdrawal symptoms that can accompany the detox period. Just be mindful so as not to find yourself right back where you started.
Contributing co-author: Andrew Chen
1. Williams, D., McBride, A. (1998) The drug treatment of alcohol withdrawal symptoms: A systematic review. Alcohol & Alcoholism. 33(2), 103-115
2. Saitz, R., Friedmn, L. S., Mayo-Smith, M.F. (1996) Alcohol withdrawal: a nationwide survey of inpatient treatment practices. 10(9), 479-87