Medication for Alcoholism Recovery

MEDICALLY REVIEWED BY KAYLA LOIBL | LAST EDITED: SEPTEMBER 10 ,
2020 
| 3 SOURCES


One of the most important factors in alcoholism recovery is finding a treatment that works for their unique needs. There are countless medication options available to treat alcoholism, but not all will work for everyone. Effective alcoholism recovery treatment most often requires an intensive, multi-faceted approach that addresses all aspects of the individual -- mind, body and spirit.

Treatment may involve one or more of the following: intervention, residential treatment facility, out-patient program, psychosocial therapy, and peer support groups.

In addition, medication has played an increasing role in recent years and is sometimes prescribed to complement and propel other treatment initiatives.

While taking medicine will not help overcome alcoholism (or any addiction), three drugs have shown promise in supporting overall treatment efforts and have received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Disulfiram 

Antabuse, or disulfiram as it is also known, serves as an alcohol deterrent. Individuals on the drug experience severe reactions such as facial flushing, throbbing headache, nausea, vomiting, heightened blood pressure and increased heart rate when consuming alcohol.

Even tiny amounts of alcohol can cause unpleasant effects. . These effects can go away after a few hours and individuals typically will not experience any adverse reactions when taking the medication.

The primary action of disulfiram is to cause unpleasant reactions if substances containing alcohol are consumed, thus discouraging further alcohol consumption by an individual who drinks despite these consequences.

Studies indicate that disulfiram may be most useful in helping patients abstain from drinking for at least 30 days under regular medical supervision. However, it has also been helpful in motivating some treatment participants to attend more frequent appointments and comply with recommended therapies such as psychotherapy and 12-Step participation.

Naltrexone 

Naltrexone is sold under the brand names ReVia and Depade. An extended-release form of naltrexone is marketed under the name Vivitrol. (Vivitrol is taken by injection rather than by mouth.)

The drug reduces the urge to drink by blocking neurotransmitters in the brain that produce the "high" people experience when they consume alcohol. This medication is often used with the sinclair method of alcoholism treatment, which claims a 78% success rate.

When taking naltrexone, individuals may still drink and can become intoxicated. However, they tend to not experience the same pleasurable effects of alcohol and usually stop drinking earlier in a session.

Naltrexone is also beneficial in treating people who are addicted to opioids such as heroin or prescription painkillers.

alcoholism-recovery

Acamprosate 

Campral, the marketed name for acamprosate, helps by reducing the physical distress and emotional discomfort (i.e. sweating, anxiety, sleep disturbances) people usually experience when they stop drinking. In addition, the drug reduces the urge for a drink.

Like disulfiram and naltrexone, acamprosate is not effective when taken alone. It is most beneficial when used in conjunction with alcohol counseling and other therapies that address behavioral changes, such as differentiating between drinking activities and socializing sober. These medications are often used to maintain abstinence rather than aid in initial detoxification.

When all's said and done -- although these drugs may be useful tools in an overall alcoholism recovery treatment plan the vast majority of individuals have vastly improved their chances of long-term sobriety by utilizing a combination of pharmacology, evidence-based psychotherapy (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy) and peer support group participation (e.g., 12-Step program).

Medication for Alcoholism Recovery

These medications can only be prescribed to people who have already stopped drinking and have undergone or are receiving therapy. They are of no use if individuals are still consuming alcohol; there is no silver bullet to help someone stop drinking.

The effectiveness of these drugs is directly tied to the alcoholic’s motivation to stay sober and get well. Therefore, the benefits vary by individual and can only support recovery goals when used in combination with therapy and support group engagement. 

Nonetheless, no matter how much these medications may help an individual stop drinking, they are not for everyone. It is important to discuss all treatment options with a physician or counselor before making any decisions about the best course of action.

Individuals who have been diagnosed with depression, kidney disease, or liver impairment should not take disulfiram or naltrexone. In addition, women who are pregnant and individuals with a history of seizures must be extremely cautious about taking acamprosate.

If an individual stops drinking after using these medications for some time, it is not recommended that they discontinue the drug without first seeing a physician to discuss tapering off.

It may also be important to see a physician before any dosage changes are made if the original prescription was not effective. Alcoholics who stop drinking after a period on naltrexone can experience severe withdrawal symptoms as the medication leaves their system quickly.

They will also need to talk with their doctor about what to do if they relapse on alcohol, because the same treatment won't work again.

It is also important to note that naltrexone should not be stopped suddenly. Individuals who have stopped drinking while taking this drug may need to decrease their dose gradually over time to avoid physical withdrawal symptoms.

Individuals who are prescribed these medications are encouraged to do so in concert with professional counseling sessions. Often support groups are helpful as well. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is particularly effective because individuals offering their personal stories serve as powerful proof that sobriety works and hope is possible. A supportive community of fellow alcoholics is a great way to stay accountable and avoid a return to drinking.

If an alcoholic tries treatment with these drugs and it does not work the first time, the physician may prescribe a different dosage or try a new medication. If all else fails, physicians will often recommend that the addict goes to rehab. It takes multiple attempts before an alcoholic can achieve long-term sobriety.


Related Information

Drugs For Alcoholism - Additional information about drug treatment for alcoholism. To make a full recovery, therapy and/or support groups are necessary. Follow the links to learn more about alcoholism medical treatment.

Kudzu for Alcoholism - Find out why this ancient chinese remedy has shown promise as a viable herbal treatment to help curb alcohol cravings.



Return HOME from Alcoholism Recovery information

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 

I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LPC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More

Sources:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Medications Can Aid Recovery from Alcoholism,” by Paula Kurtzweil. 

Mayo Clinic