The Safety and Utility of Phenobarbital Use for the Treatment of Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome in the Medical Intensive Care Unit

J Intensive Care Med. 2020 Sep;35(9):844-850. doi: 10.1177/0885066618783947. Epub 2018 Jun 20.


Background: Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is a common reason for admission to a medical intensive care unit (MICU) and requires significant hospital resource utilization. Benzodiazepines are first-line therapy for AWS in many intensive care units. We propose the use of symptom-triggered phenobarbital for the treatment of AWS as a safe alternative to benzodiazepines.

Methods: This was a retrospective observational study of a 4-year period, 2011 to 2015, of all patients with AWS admitted to the MICU of 1 tertiary care hospital and treated with phenobarbital. A symptom-triggered protocol was used. Resolution of AWS was assessed with the Richmond Agitation Sedation Scale to goal score of 0 to -1. The Charlson Comorbidity Index was used as an index of patient illness severity. Complications associated with phenobarbital use and/or the AWS admission were analyzed.

Results: Data of 86 AWS patient encounters were analyzed. The mean Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol-Revised score of patients admitted to the MICU with AWS was 19 ± 9. The mean phenobarbital dose administered during the MICU stay was 1977.5 ± 1531.5 mg. There were a total of 17 (20%) intubations. The most frequent cause of mechanical ventilation in patients with AWS was loss of airway clearance, followed by hemodynamic instability secondary to upper gastrointestinal bleeding and the corresponding need for endoscopy.

Conclusions: Sole use of phenobarbital use for control of AWS may be a safe alternative to benzodiazepines. Further study is needed to correlate phenobarbital serum levels with clinical control of AWS.

Keywords: alcohol withdrawal; intensive care unit; phenobarbital.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol-Induced Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Critical Care Outcomes
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / therapeutic use*
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Phenobarbital / therapeutic use*
  • Respiration, Artificial / statistics & numerical data
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / drug therapy*
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives
  • Phenobarbital