Acute withdrawal: diagnosis and treatment

John C M Brust
Handbook of Clinical Neurology 2014, 125: 123-31
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal range in severity from mild "hangover" to fatal delirium tremens (DTs). Tremor, hallucinosis, and seizures usually occur within 48 hours of abstinence. Seizures tend to be generalized without focality, occurring singly or in a brief cluster, but status epilepticus is not unusual. DTs usually appears after 48 hours of abstinence and consists of marked inattentiveness, agitation, hallucinations, fluctuating level of alertness, marked tremulousness, and sympathetic overactivity. The mainstay of treatment for alcohol withdrawal is benzodiazepine pharmacotherapy, which can be used to control mild early symptoms, to prevent progression to DTs, or to treat DTs itself. Alternative less evidence-based pharmacotherapies include phenobarbital, anticonvulsants, baclofen, gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, beta-blockers, alpha-2-agonists, and N-methyl-d-aspartate receptor blockers. Treatment of DTs is a medical emergency requiring heavy sedation in an intensive care unit, with close attention to autonomic instability, fever, fluid loss, and electrolyte imbalance. Frequent comorbid disorders include hypoglycemia, liver failure, pancreatitis, sepsis, meningitis, intracranial hemorrhage, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

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