Is There Medication for Alcohol Addiction?

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Medications for alcohol addiction can be a great complement to your behavioral therapy sessions and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) support group meetings. There are a variety of FDA-approved medications available for those who need help withdrawing from alcohol, recovering from alcohol dependence, and achieving long-term sobriety from alcohol addiction. They’re one of the best treatment options for healthcare professionals to help you stop drinking.

medication for alcohol addiction

How Do Medications for Alcohol Addiction Work?

Each medication for alcohol addiction works uniquely to treat one or more aspects of alcohol use disorder. Some medicines can reduce symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, while others can reduce alcohol cravings and your desire to drink.

Doctors who prescribe medications for alcohol addiction must receive special certification and training on how these drugs work and how they get used before they prescribe them to patients. Not all doctors have access to these medications. However, they can be dispensed and prescribed by many doctors who work at drug and alcohol rehab centers.

If you are in recovery from alcohol addiction and live in or near Indiana, contact Indiana Center for Recovery to learn more about your options for alcohol medications. Our doctors can talk to you about your options and start you on one or more medications if we think you can benefit from this treatment.

Which Medications Treat Alcohol Dependence?

The FDA currently approves three medications for the treatment of alcohol dependence: acamprosate (Campral), disulfiram (Antabuse), and naltrexone (Vivitrol or Revia).

Acamprosate

Acamprosate reduces the desire to drink alcohol to prevent people with alcohol addiction from wanting to drink. It works by acting on certain brain chemicals that reduce cravings for alcohol.

Acamprosate does not prevent alcohol withdrawal symptoms and does not work in people still drinking alcohol. It may also not work in people who previously drank large amounts of alcohol before quitting or who are misusing other harmful substances like heroin, methamphetamine, and habit-forming medications like opioids and benzodiazepines.

Doctors usually start patients on acamprosate on their fifth day of abstinence from alcohol. The drug reaches its full effectiveness within five to eight days after you begin taking it. Acamprosate’s potential side effects include nausea, diarrhea, sweating, and insomnia.

Disulfiram

Disulfiram is an alcohol deterrent that causes unpleasant side effects in people who drink alcohol while using it. This medication is generally only prescribed to people who have completed alcohol detox and practice abstinence. People who drink alcohol with disulfiram in their systems will experience a wide range of side effects within 10 minutes. Symptoms usually last for at least one hour.

The side effects that occur when drinking alcohol on disulfiram include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Facial flushing
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness
  • Sweating
  • Blurred vision
  • Mental confusion
  • Choking
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty breathing

Disulfiram should not be taken for at least 12 hours after the last alcoholic drink. If you were using disulfiram and stopped taking it, you could experience a reaction when drinking alcohol for up to two weeks. Potential side effects of disulfiram (if you use it correctly as prescribed) include acne, drowsiness, and erectile dysfunction.

Naltrexone

Naltrexone is another alcohol deterrent medication. It works far differently than disulfiram. Naltrexone works on receptors in the brain to block the euphoric effects of alcohol and intoxication. If you drink alcohol while using naltrexone, you will not feel any pleasure or relaxation due to how naltrexone will block these feelings. As a result, you may not crave alcohol or want to drink it at all since it produces no effects.

Naltrexone works for both alcohol and opioid addiction, making this medication an ideal treatment for those who may have been misusing alcohol and opioids. Potential side effects of naltrexone include nausea, diarrhea, constipation, insomnia, and muscle pain.

Is There a Medication for Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal can often be highly unpleasant, which is why it’s understandable some people may be scared or hesitant to go through alcohol detox. However, several medications can effectively reduce symptoms of alcohol withdrawal so you can feel more comfortable and experience fewer complications.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be mild, moderate, or severe. Largely, they depend on your heavy drinking days. The severity of your symptoms will depend on the length of time you were dependent on alcohol, the amount of alcohol you were regularly drinking, and whether you have any other medical conditions. Age, activity level, and nutrition are other factors that can affect how you respond to alcohol withdrawal.

Treatment for alcohol withdrawal is known as alcohol detox. Alcohol detox usually takes place at an inpatient or residential alcohol rehab center, where you can be monitored and treated as you go through withdrawal. Nurses and doctors may use a variety of medications to minimize your symptoms and make you feel as comfortable as possible.

People with mild to moderate symptoms may only receive symptomatic medications to reduce specific symptoms. For example, a patient only experiencing a headache may receive ibuprofen or acetaminophen. People with moderate to severe symptoms will usually receive a benzodiazepine, which can reduce the number of symptoms simultaneously, including seizures.

Topiramate (Topamax) is another medication commonly used to treat alcohol withdrawal. Topiramate can prevent migraine headaches, treat seizures, and reset chemical imbalances in the brain caused by alcohol misuse.

Which Medications Reduce Cravings For Alcohol?

Acamprosate, disulfiram, naltrexone, and topiramate can directly or indirectly reduce alcohol cravings or your desire to drink alcohol. For instance, acamprosate works directly on brain chemicals to reduce your craving for alcohol, while disulfiram can make alcohol uncomfortable and unpleasant due to the side effects it can trigger in the event you decide to drink.

If you feel cravings are your number one challenge in alcohol recovery, mention this to your doctor or treatment team at alcohol rehab. Your doctor can prescribe one of these medications that reduce alcohol cravings and recommend a specialized behavioral therapy class to teach you how to control and manage cravings.

Side Effects of Alcohol Medication

All medications come with potential side effects, including alcohol medications. The benefits of these medications often outweigh their possible risks and adverse effects, especially given how alcohol addiction often comes with consequences far more detrimental to your overall health and livelihood.

Your doctor can talk to you in greater detail about the side effects of your specific alcohol addiction medication. If you experience side effects that are too difficult to deal with or too severe, your doctor may switch you to another medication. Be open and honest with your doctor about how your medication is working, as the ultimate goal is long-term sobriety from alcohol. 

If the side effects are preventing you from using it, you may need another medication or treatment that works better at helping you stay sober.

Can Medications Improve Alcohol Abstinence Rates?

All medications go through rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness before being approved by the FDA. All the medicines currently used to treat alcohol dependence and addiction have successfully improved rates of alcohol abstinence.

According to data from clinical trials that examined the efficacy of acamprosate, 36% of patients who were using this medication were still abstinent after six months, compared with 23% of patients who were taking a placebo.

There is less data confirming the efficacy of disulfiram; however, doctors have found that this medication is most effective when given to patients by their spouses or by their doctor at a clinic. Otherwise, some patients get tempted to skip taking disulfiram so they can drink alcohol without suffering unpleasant effects.

There is far more data surrounding the efficacy of naltrexone. A clinical trial showed that more patients who took naltrexone for three months prevented relapse than the placebo group. Another study showed that people who took naltrexone reduced the number of days they engaged in heavy drinking by 25%.

Where Can I Get Medications for Alcohol Addiction?

Medications for alcohol addiction are available at many drug and alcohol rehab centers that offer detox, behavioral therapy, and other evidence-based treatments for alcohol use disorder. Some of these medications may also be available through your primary care physician, though working with an addiction treatment specialist at a rehab center may improve your chances of staying sober for longer.

drug rehab

Getting these medications at an alcohol rehab center comes with far more benefits than if you were to get them from your family doctor. Doctors at rehab centers are often more knowledgeable and experienced with these medications and usually have a better idea of which would work best for you. A rehab center will also integrate your medicines with other treatments to further enhance your recovery, like AA meetings, cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, and dual diagnosis therapy.

Contact Indiana Center for Recovery today at (844) 650-0064 to determine whether you’re an ideal candidate for alcohol medications. You may be eligible for these medications if you are physically dependent on alcohol, experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, or have had a relapse after already completing an alcohol rehab program. 

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