Ativan: Uses, Identification & Addictive Qualities
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Last Updated - 06/17/2022View our editorial policy
As one of the gold-standard drugs for alcohol withdrawal treatment, Ativan can help you safely detox and prepare you for further rehab treatment.
Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are widely considered to be the best drugs for managing symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS). Benzos are versatile and can be prescribed to treat AWS in both inpatient and outpatient settings. One of the most common benzos used in AWS treatment is Ativan.
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What Is Ativan?
Ativan is the brand name for lorazepam, a generic benzodiazepine. It is a Schedule IV controlled substance that is FDA-approved to treat anxiety and seizures. However, it is commonly prescribed off-label for other conditions, including insomnia, agitation and AWS.
Ativan for Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
A person who drinks heavily often experiences changes in their brain. Specifically, drinking interferes with the body’s ability to balance the neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate. GABA is known as the calming chemical in the brain, while glutamate excites the cells. Because heavy drinking overly depresses brain activity and enhances GABA, the brain becomes hypersensitive to glutamate. If someone suddenly stops drinking, the brain lacks enough GABA to calm itself down. The brain then becomes over-excited due to glutamate sensitivity, leading to the unpleasant effects of AWS.
As a central nervous system depressant, Ativan helps to slow down brain activity, enhance GABA and stop AWS symptoms. Further, because Ativan is fast-acting, experts recommend it as a first-choice benzo option to treat AWS symptoms.
Dosage and Administration
Ativan may be used in different formulations and different doses, depending on the person’s needs. For example, a person with AWS who is experiencing a seizure will need an injectable form of Ativan.
Benzos like Ativan are generally given as-needed to treat AWS symptoms, meaning the drug is only used when the person’s symptoms require it. This means that dosing is highly individualized and can vary from person to person. However, a common dose of Ativan for AWS treatment is generally 2–4 mg taken orally as needed.
See Related: How many Ativan can you take?
Like all drugs, Ativan has side effects. These include:
- Sedation, occurring in 16% of people
- Dizziness, occurring in almost 7% of people
- Weakness, occurring in around 4% of people
- Unsteadiness, occurring in 3.4% of people
Additional side effects may occur if a person needs repeated high doses of injected Ativan while experiencing AWS. This is due to a chemical called propylene glycol that is present in the injectable forms of Ativan. These side effects are:
- Low blood sodium
- Metabolic acidosis
Benzos like Ativan are central nervous system depressants. As such, people should avoid taking Ativan with other central nervous system depressants, such as:
- Opioids: The FDA has a black box warning on benzos that details the risks of taking these drugs with an opioid. The risks include extreme sedation, slowed breathing and death.
- Alcohol: Combining Ativan and alcohol can be deadly, as it may cause extremely slowed breathing.
Risks of Ativan Treatment
Like all drugs, Ativan carries some risks. Even when Ativan is taken as prescribed and under medical supervision in a hospital setting, risks can include:
- Slowed breathing
- Movement difficulties
- Memory problems
Delirium can be particularly tricky to manage when a person is being treated for AWS; delirium can be both an Ativan side effect as well as a symptom of AWS itself.
Because Ativan is a Schedule IV controlled substance, it also carries a risk of abuse, addiction and dependence. These risks are so pronounced that the FDA is implementing a new black box warning for all benzos to educate people about the risks of benzo addiction.
Related Topic: Benzo Addiction
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Because Ativan addiction is possible, addiction medicine specialists are careful when prescribing it for AWS treatment. For example, addiction doctors will often prescribe only a one-to-three-day supply of Ativan and will discontinue prescriptions after alcohol withdrawal is complete.
Related Topic: Alcohol Withdrawal
Ativan Effectiveness for Alcohol Withdrawal
Experts consider Ativan one of the first-line drugs for AWS treatment. It has been shown to work as well as chlordiazepoxide, another first-line benzo for AWS. The drug is also versatile, as it is available in an oral form to manage AWS symptoms as-needed and a fast-acting injectable form. The injectable form can be quickly administered if a person experiences more severe AWS symptoms, such as a seizure.
Other Benzodiazepines Treating Alcohol Withdrawal
Besides lorazepam, the most commonly used benzos for AWS treatment are diazepam (Valium) and chlordiazepoxide (previously sold as Librium). All three of these benzos are long-acting, which leads to a smoother withdrawal and fewer breakthrough symptoms.
If you struggle with alcohol use and are wondering if Ativan may ease your withdrawal symptoms, The Recovery Village at Baptist Health can help. Contact us today to learn more about treatment programs that can work well for your needs.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Lorazepam.” December 5, 2019. Accessed October 18, 2020.
Drugs. “Lorazepam.” September 2, 2020. Accessed October 18, 2020.
American Society of Addiction Medicine. “The ASAM Clinical Practice Guideline on Alcohol Withdrawal Management.” January 23, 2020. Accessed October 18, 2020.
Food and Drug Administration. “FDA requiring Boxed Warning updated to improve safe use of benzodiazepine drug class.” September 23, 2020. Accessed October 18, 2020.
Ramanujam, Ranjani; Padma, Lakshminarayana; Swaminath, Gopalrao; Thimmaiah, Rohini S. “A comparative study of the clinical efficacy and safety of Lorazepam and chlordiazepoxide in alcohol dependence syndrome.” Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, March 2015. Accessed October 18, 2020.