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Med Clin North Am. 1997 Jul;81(4):881-907.

Pharmacotherapies for alcohol abuse. Withdrawal and treatment.

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  • 1Clinical Addiction Research and Education Unit, Boston Medical Center, Boston University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, USA.


Pharmacologic management of alcoholism is only one part of the management of both alcohol dependence and withdrawal, which also includes the provision of a calm, quiet environment; reassurance; ongoing reassessment; attention to fluid and electrolyte disorders; treatment of coexisting addictions and common medical, surgical, and psychiatric comorbidities; and referral for ongoing psychosocial and medical treatment. For further discussion of these topics, the reader is referred to previously published sources. A survey of alcoholism treatment programs revealed that although benzodiazepines were the most commonly used drugs, standardized monitoring of patients' withdrawal severity was not common practice, and a significant minority of clinicians were using a variety of other drugs, some not known to prevent or treat the complications of withdrawal. Treatment should be based on the available evidence (Working Group on Pharmacological Management of Alcohol Withdrawal: American Society of Addiction Medicine Committee on Practice Guidelines: Pharmacological management of alcohol withdrawal: An evidence-based practice guideline. Unpublished draft, 1997). Patients with significant symptoms, patients with complications such as seizures or delirium tremens, and patients at higher risk for complications of alcohol withdrawal should receive benzodiazepines, particularly chlordiazepoxide, diazepam, or lorazepam, because of their safety and documented efficacy in preventing and treating the most serious complications of alcohol withdrawal. These drugs may be dosed on a fixed schedule for a predetermined number of doses on a tapering schedule over several days, or they may be administered by front-loading. An alternative approach for selected patients without seizures or acute comorbidity is symptom-triggered therapy, which individualizes treatment and decreases the duration and dose of medication administration. With either of the regimens, patients should have their withdrawal severity monitored until symptoms are resolving. Once withdrawal from alcohol is safely completed, the focus should turn to helping to prevent relapse. Disulfiram may be useful in highly motivated subsets of patients and when compliance-enhancing strategies are used. Naltrexone is useful in the broader population of patients entering treatment for alcohol dependence. These pharmacologic interventions should be given in the context of ongoing psychosocial support. There is substantial evidence that pharmacologic management of alcohol abuse and dependence is effective. As would be predicted from alcohol's myriad cellular effects, no panacea exists for alcoholism. For alcohol withdrawal, however, although treatment regimens have only recently been refined, evidence for effective treatment of symptoms and prevention of complications with benzodiazepines has been available for decades. Within the last decade, effective treatments, including naltrexone, have been shown to reduce alcohol intake in alcohol-dependent persons. Given the prevalence and cost of alcohol-related problems, all effective therapies (including pharmacologic treatments) should be considered to treat alcohol abuse and dependence.

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