Alcohol withdrawal seizures


  • Onset after last drink: 6-48h
  • Multiple seizures: 60% of patients
  • Progression to Delerium tremens: 33% of patients
  • May occur in spectrum or independent of Alcohol withdrawal syndrome

Clinical Features

  • Single or multiple brief tonic-clonic seizures in the appropriate time setting for alcohol withdrawal[1]

Differential Diagnosis

Ethanol related disease processes



  • Clinical features
  • Elevated CIWA

CIWA score

Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment – Alcohol – revised (CIWA-Ar)

  • Headache 0-7
  • Orientation 0-4
  • Tremor 0-7
  • Sweating 0-7
  • Anxiety 0-7
  • Nausea (and Vomiting) 0-7
  • Tactile Hallucinations 0-7
  • Auditory Hallucinations 0-7
  • Visual Hallucinations 0-7
  • Agitation 0-7

Maximum Score = 67

  • <8: Typically do not require medication
  • 8-19: Medication
  • ≥20: Medication and admission


Don’t use phenytoin or fosphenytoin to treat seizures caused by drug toxicity or drug withdrawal.[2]

Benzodiazepine overview

Agents Equivalent PO dose (mg) Route Onset of Action (min) Half Life (hr) Metabolism
Chlordiazepoxide 25 PO, IV 30 - 120 7-28 CYP; active metabolites
Diazepam 5 PO, IV, IM 2 - 5 20-120 CYP; active metabolites
Lorazepam 1 PO, IM, IV 15-20 8-19 Glucuronidation


  • Diazepam (Valium) 5-10 mg IV (depending on severity)
    • May repeat q5-10 min for severe withdrawal (may increase dose by 10 mg every 5-10 min until desired effect achieved, max dose of 200 mg)
    • Half-life 20-100 h (long acting)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan) 1-4mg IV (depending on severity)
    • May repeat q15-20 min for severe withdrawal (titrated to effect)
    • Rarely causes hepatitis, as opposed to diazepam which may cause a cholestatic hepatitis[3]
    • Half-life 10-20 h (medium acting)

Other Agents

For use in cases refractory to benzodiazepine treatment

  • Propofol
    • If patient does not respond to high doses of benzodiazepines
    • 0.3-1.25 mg/kg up to 4 mg/kg/hr (consider intubation), for up to 48 hours
  • Barbiturates (Phenobarbital)
    • Used when refractory to benzodiazepines (consider after patient has received equivalent of 200 mg diazepam)
      • Phenobarbital 130-260 mg IV q 15-20 minutes
      • Can also be used as a first line load at 10 mg/kg prior to giving benzodiazepines to decrease benzodiazepine requirements and ICU admissions [4]
  • α-2 agonists (Dexmedetomidine)
    • Decrease severity of symptoms, but only supplemental to GABA-ergic first-lines
    • Dexmedetomidine drip, start 0.2 mcg/kg/hr, likely needing no more than 0.7 mcg/kg/hr[5]
  • Ketamine
    • May have some use in refractory cases
    • Blocks the NMDA receptor which is excited an unregulated. [6]

Special Situations


  • Admission

See Also

External Links


  1. Manasco A, Chang S, Larriviere J, et al. Alcohol withdrawal. Southern Medical Journal. 2012; 105(11):607–612.
  2. Choosing Wisely. American College of Medical Toxicology and The American Academy of Clinical Toxicology.
  3. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Lorazepam Drug Record.
  4. Rosenson J, et al. Phenobarbital for acute alcohol withdrawal: a prospective randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study. J Emerg Med. 2013; 44(3):592-598.
  5. Rayner SG, et al. Dexmedetomidine as adjunct treatment for severe alcohol withdrawal in the ICU. Ann Intensive Care. 2012; 2: 12. Published online 2012 May 23. doi: 10.1186/2110-5820-2-12.
  6. Wong, A et al. Evaluation of adjunctive ketamine to benzodiazepines for management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Ann Pharmacother. 2015 Jan;49(1):14-9. PMID: 25325907
  7. Arroliga AC, Shehab N, McCarthy K, Gonzales JP. Relationship of continuous infusion lorazepam to serum propylene glycol concentration in critically ill adults*. Critical Care Medicine. 2004;32(8):1709–1714. doi:10.1097/01.CCM.0000134831.40466.39.