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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/ 563-575 First published online: 1 November 1998


Benzodiazepines (BZDs) are the preferred pharmacological agents for treatment of acute alcohol withdrawal. Treatment with BZDs can be administered on an out-patient basis for subjects experiencing mild to moderate withdrawal and on an in-patient basis for the most severe forms of withdrawal. The efficacy of BZDs for long-term treatment of alcoholism has been more controversial Controlled studies indicate that BZD treatment does not improve abstinence rate. Most reviews of drug treatment of alcoholism conclude that routine use of BZDs is not indicated on a long-term basis. However, the clinical reality is that many alcoholics are treated by BZDs during detoxification and then continue to receive them for the treatment of anxiety disorders or insomnia, often secondary to alcohol dependence. After a review of the biological properties of BZDs related to their therapeutic issues, this review discusses the major indications for BZD treatment of alcoholism. BZDs are first prescribed to prevent and treat symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Indication of BZD administration during alcohol withdrawal and criteria of choice of an agent according to its half-life or its route of administration are discussed. The different protocols of BZD treatment during withdrawal are considered (e.g. loading techniques, symptom-triggered therapy). The use of BZDs in the treatment of anxiety associated with alcohol dependence is examined. Among unwanted effects, risk of abuse, memory impairment, confusion, and delirium are described. Finally, practical guidelines for the use of BZDs in the treatment of alcoholism are proposed.