Phenobarbital for acute alcohol withdrawal: a prospective randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study

J Emerg Med. 2013 Mar;44(3):592-598.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2012.07.056. Epub 2012 Sep 19.


Background: Acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AAWS) is encountered in patients presenting acutely to the Emergency Department (ED) and often requires pharmacologic management.

Objective: We investigated whether a single dose of intravenous (i.v.) phenobarbital combined with a standardized lorazepam-based alcohol withdrawal protocol decreases intensive care unit (ICU) admission in ED patients with acute alcohol withdrawal.

Methods: This was a prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Patients were randomized to receive either a single dose of i.v. phenobarbital (10 mg/kg in 100 mL normal saline) or placebo (100 mL normal saline). All patients were placed on the institutional symptom-guided lorazepam-based alcohol withdrawal protocol. The primary outcome was initial level of hospital admission (ICU vs. telemetry vs. floor ward).

Results: There were 198 patients enrolled in the study, and 102 met inclusion criteria for analysis. Fifty-one patients received phenobarbital and 51 received placebo. Baseline characteristics and severity were similar in both groups. Patients that received phenobarbital had fewer ICU admissions (8% vs. 25%, 95% confidence interval 4-32). There were no differences in adverse events.

Conclusions: A single dose of i.v. phenobarbital combined with a symptom-guided lorazepam-based alcohol withdrawal protocol resulted in decreased ICU admission and did not cause increased adverse outcomes.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol-Induced Disorders, Nervous System / drug therapy*
  • Anticonvulsants / administration & dosage*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Injections, Intravenous
  • Lorazepam / administration & dosage
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Phenobarbital / administration & dosage*
  • Prospective Studies


  • Anticonvulsants
  • Lorazepam
  • Phenobarbital