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Alcohol Withdrawal Medication – Understanding the Options

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

There is little doubt that alcohol withdrawal is an uncomfortable proposition for almost everyone who goes through it. In light of that, medical science has been working for years on different kinds of drugs that can be used to make withdrawal symptoms more tolerable. As the thinking goes, reducing the level of discomfort related to withdrawal increases the chances that more people will make it through to the end. Detox in the modern era is more likely than ever before to be accompanied by prescription alcohol withdrawal medication.

Two classes of drugs are now commonly used in alcohol detox. The first class of drugs is intended to treat only one symptom: alcohol cravings. It is important to treat this symptom because cravings are both physical and psychological. If cravings are not kept under control, the recovering alcoholic may not be able to stop him/herself from taking a drink when other symptoms become too difficult to tolerate.

The three drugs used for this purpose are known as acamprosate, naltrexone, and nalmefene. They are generally prescribed in conjunction with professional counselling and participation in a 12-step programme or support group environment.

The second class of drugs is prescribed to relieve the severity of remaining withdrawal symptoms. These are drugs that were originally developed for other purposes but have since proven to be effective for alcohol withdrawal when used for short durations. They are known as benzodiazepines.

How Benzos Work

Known also as 'benzos', benzodiazepines are a kind of drug that enhance the effect of a brain neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and its receptor, creating a sedative-like impact in the brain. It is considered a psychoactive drug as well as a controlled substance.

When used as an alcohol withdrawal medication, a benzo can take the edge off of withdrawal symptoms by mimicking the sedative effects of alcohol. As the level of alcohol in the system falls, an appropriate amount of benzo medication can make up for it, allowing the body to readjust more gradually. The most commonly used benzodiazepines for alcohol withdrawal are:

  • chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • diazepam (Valium)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)
  • oxazepam (Serax).

You may recognise some or all of the brand names listed above – like Valium, for example – due to their widespread use for anxiety and other such disorders. You might also be familiar with the fact that these drugs are highly addictive. It is for this reason that benzos are only supposed to be used in alcohol withdrawal for short amounts of time. Anything more than a few days could result in replacing an alcohol addiction with a benzodiazepine addiction.

Different Kinds of Benzodiazepines

There are both short-acting benzodiazepines and those with a longer half-life. The former tend to be avoided for alcohol withdrawal because they can lead to potentially dangerous seizures. If a doctor were to prescribe a short-acting benzo for alcohol withdrawal, it would likely be in the setting of a hospital or private rehab clinic where 24-hour medical supervision is available.

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Benzodiazepines with a longer half-life are preferred because they do a better job of reducing withdrawal symptoms while creating a lower risk of seizures. These kinds of benzos can be used for inpatient detox, outpatient detox, and home-based programmes. However, individuals involved in outpatient or home-based detox need to be forthcoming about their overall health and withdrawal symptoms throughout the duration of treatment. Medical professionals need all the appropriate information to determine whether or not the drugs are working without creating dependence.

Ask Your Doctor about Options

An alcohol withdrawal medication might be appropriate in your case if you are looking to overcome a drinking problem. We urge you to ask your doctor about the available options. If you are in the earliest stages of alcohol abuse or dependence, your doctor might recommend one of the anti-craving medications along with an appropriate level of counselling. That may be all you need to overcome your drinking problem.

On the other hand, a client already in the throes of alcoholism may need further assistance by way of a benzodiazepine. A benzo to help you get through withdrawal, followed by an anti-craving medication to help prevent relapse, could be the perfect combination to deal with the physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal. You could then go on to receive other post-withdrawal treatments that can help you mentally and emotionally overcome your dependence.

No Magic Pills Out There,

Now that you have the information you need about alcohol withdrawal medication options, the last thing you need to know is that the medications we have described are not magic pills that will enable you to stop drinking without any additional effort on your part. Both anti-craving medications and benzos can generally make withdrawal symptoms more manageable. They cannot prevent you from making the decision to start drinking again.

In light of this reality, organisations like ours encourage people with drinking problems not to rely only on detox to solve their problems. Detox and withdrawal only address the physical aspects of addiction. But there is more to addiction than just the physical. Addiction also has very real effects on the mind and emotions – effects that can alter thinking patterns, lead to unhealthy emotions, and generally wreak havoc in one's personal life.

The best way to overcome a serious drinking problem is to combine detox with a selection of rehabilitative therapies offered by trained therapists. This is the kind of treatment you get at a private alcohol rehab clinic here in the UK. Programmes last between three and 12 weeks and are conducted in a comfortable and private environment that is conducive to full recovery. Treatment is followed by an ongoing set of aftercare services designed to help the individual avoid relapse within the first year.

For more information about alcohol withdrawal medication and the detox process in general, please do not hesitate to contact our 24-hour helpline. We exist to help alcohol abusers and their families find relief from the devastating addictions they are suffering from. We would be honoured to help you in your time of need.

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