The Role of Barbiturates for Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Psychosomatics. 2016 Jul-Aug;57(4):341-7. doi: 10.1016/j.psym.2016.02.011. Epub 2016 Mar 2.


Background: Benzodiazepine-resistant cases of alcohol withdrawal syndrome are common, and therefore alternate treatments are needed.

Objective: Our aim was to conduct a systematic review of published reports on the use of barbiturates for alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Methods: We performed a systematic literature search of PUBMED for relevant citations that described the use of barbiturates either alone or in conjunction with other pharmacological agents to treat alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Results: A total of 15 citations were identified; 2 citations looked at barbiturates alone; 1 found barbiturates effective in an emergency department setting at treating seizures and preventing return visits. A second showed that barbiturates caused a relatively low rate of respiratory depression. Further, 5 citations compared barbiturates with benzodiazepines; 1 suggested that they were better at treating severe withdrawal, and another showed they were more effective at preventing seizures; 4 citations found they were as effective as benzodiazepines, but 1 found a higher rate of respiratory depression. Also, 3 citations compared a combination of barbiturates and benzodiazepines to benzodiazepines alone; 1 showed decreased ventilation, another showed fewer intensive care unit admissions, and a third showed better symptom control; 3 citations described detailed reports of barbiturate protocols. Lastly, 2 citations compared barbiturates with other agents and found them equivalent.

Conclusion: Barbiturates provide effective treatment for alcohol withdrawal syndrome. In particular, they show promise for use in the emergency department and for severe withdrawal in the intensive care unit. Respiratory depression does not appear to be exceedingly common. Additional studies are needed to clarify the role of barbiturates in alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Keywords: alcohol withdrawal; barbiturate; benzodiazepine-resistant; delirium tremens; phenobarbital.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium / drug therapy*
  • Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures / drug therapy*
  • Barbiturates / therapeutic use*
  • Benzodiazepines / therapeutic use
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / adverse effects
  • Ethanol / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / drug therapy
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / etiology


  • Barbiturates
  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Ethanol