Medications Used To Treat Alcoholism

Published On: February 25, 2021

The treatment for alcoholism is commonly seen as psychotherapeutic in nature, involving specialised addiction programmes and counselling along with other forms of social support.

While these methods can be extremely beneficial to recovery from alcohol dependence, the use of medication to treat alcoholism has also been proven to be very effective. [1]

Which Medications Are Used To Treat Alcoholism?

There are a handful of medications that have been approved for use in treating alcoholism. Each medication comes with their own potential side effects and benefits.

1. Disulfiram

Disulfiram, also known as Antabuse, is used as an alcohol deterrent due to the extreme reaction it causes when mixed with alcohol. If a person taking this medication consumes alcohol, they will likely vomit and feel very unwell. It’s thought that this in turn will deter the person from consuming alcohol again in the future.

Disulfiram works by interfering with the way our bodies process alcohol, resulting in an extremely unpleasant reaction. [2] As a result, it is only prescribed once the initial stage of withdrawal has passed.

As our bodies react so adversely to Disulfiram, it is only administered in small quantities with the effects usually lasting for around one hour.

Some people take Disulfiram regularly, while others only take it when they will be in a situation that could cause a potential relapse.

Possible side effects include:

  • Flushed face
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • Perspiration
  • Blurry vision
  • Weakness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea, retching and vomiting
  • Mental confusion

2. Naltrexone

Naltrexone, also known as Depade or Revia, is used to reduce alcohol cravings and dull the pleasure that comes from drinking alcohol. Many people who take Naltrexone report that the urge to drink is noticeably lessened, and they no longer feel the euphoric high that is usually associated with consuming alcohol.

Naltrexone works by blocking the opioid receptors responsible for causing feelings of pleasure and euphoria. Without these sensations, the urge to drink can be reduced. [3]

It’s important to note that the sense of feeling impaired while drinking is still present if a person taking this medication consumes alcohol. If they try to overcompensate by drinking more than usual, they can become seriously ill.

Possible side effects include:

  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Nausea, retching and vomiting
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Stomach or abdominal cramps
  • Headaches
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Anxiety and restlessness

3. Acamprosate

Acamprosate, also known as Campral, is used to ease the some of the feelings of emotional and physical discomfort that arise during long-term alcohol withdrawal.

This stage of withdrawal is recognised as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) and can potentially lead to relapse if not properly treated.

When someone with a dependence on alcohol suddenly stops drinking, the resulting chemical imbalance can cause a number of side effects. Acamprosate is thought to stabilise the chemical balance in the brain and reduce the severity of many physical and emotional reactions. [3]

Coupled with counselling and other social support, Acamprosate can be helpful at managing many of the symptoms of PAWS. It should only be taken once the initial stage of withdrawal has passed, and will be less effective if alcohol is still being consumed on a regular basis.

Possible side effects include:

  • Digestive problems (gas, diarrhoea, upset stomach)
  • Perspiration
  • Dry mouth
  • Little or no appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Disturbed sleep

Additional medications

Gabapentin and Topiramate were originally developed for the treatment of seizures, but some studies have shown them to be effective at reducing cravings for alcohol. They have also been known to result in a decreased desire to drink and can assist people in reducing their alcohol intake or even stopping entirely.

While not officially classed as alcohol medications, Gabapentin and Topiramate have performed well in trials and show potential to improve patient outcomes. [2]

Long-Term Results of Alcohol Medications

There is a higher risk of relapse during the initial 6 to 12 months of recovery from alcoholism. As a result, many medical professionals recommend that medications are used for the first three months and continue for up to a year if the person is responding well to treatment. [2]

After one year the resulting behavioural changes should mean that medication is no longer necessary, particularly when combined with a successful alcohol dependence programme.

While there is no pharmaceutical cure for alcoholism, these medications can help instil healthy behavioural changes and reduce the craving to drink. Whether you choose medication, counselling or a combination of both, reaching out for help in any form is extremely beneficial on the path to recovering from alcohol dependency.





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