Outpatient management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome

Am Fam Physician. 2013 Nov 1;88(9):589-95.


Approximately 2% to 9% of patients seen in a family physician's office have alcohol dependence. These patients are at risk of developing alcohol withdrawal syndrome if they abruptly abstain from alcohol use. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome begins six to 24 hours after the last intake of alcohol, and the signs and symptoms include tremors, agitation, nausea, sweating, vomiting, hallucinations, insomnia, tachycardia, hypertension, delirium, and seizures. Treatment aims to minimize symptoms, prevent complications, and facilitate continued abstinence from alcohol. Patients with mild or moderate alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be treated as outpatients, which minimizes expense and allows for less interruption of work and family life. Patients with severe symptoms or who are at high risk of complications should receive inpatient treatment. In addition to supportive therapy, benzodiazepines, either in a fixed-dose or symptom-triggered schedule, are recommended. Medication should be given at the onset of symptoms and continued until symptoms subside. Other medications, including carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, valproic acid, and gabapentin, have less abuse potential but do not prevent seizures. Typically, physicians should see these patients daily until symptoms subside. Although effective treatment is an initial step in recovery, long-term success depends on facilitating the patient's entry into ongoing treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium / diagnosis
  • Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium / therapy
  • Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures / diagnosis
  • Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures / therapy
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis
  • Ambulatory Care / methods*
  • Anticonvulsants / therapeutic use
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / therapeutic use
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / therapy*


  • Anticonvulsants
  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Ethanol