3 Medicines Used to Treat Alcohol Addiction
Alcoholism is a Disease
Alcoholism is considered a disease according to the American Medical Association. To date, however, there is no magic bullet — or pill — to cure this disease.
The good news is that there are several medications that can help someone who has an alcohol addiction reduce their cravings for alcohol and help diminish their need and desire to drink.
Pharmacological Treatments for Alcoholism
In the United States, there are three medications specifically approved to treat alcohol dependence.
Both naltrexone and acamprosate are classified as anti-craving medications. Disulfiram is categorized as an aversion drug.
As an anti-craving agent, naltrexone works by blocking the euphoric feeling in the brain that people experience when they drink alcohol. It can help reduce alcohol relapse rates and increase alcohol abstinence rates.
Naltrexone is distributed under the trade names of Depade and Revia. It is also sold under the brand name Vivitrol in an extended-release version of naltrexone.
While naltrexone can be prescribed even if the person is still drinking, its use is advised as part of a comprehensive alcohol dependence treatment program. Naltrexone is also used for other substance addictions, including opioids such as oxycontin and heroin.
In addition to a once a day pill, today, naltrexone is available in a monthly, long-acting injection. The benefit of the once a month injection is that individuals are more likely to commit to it.
Like naltrexone, acamprosate also increases alcohol abstinence rates and decreases relapses rates. This anti-craving medication helps the individual with alcohol dependence reduce the emotional discomfort and physical distress he or she may experience when they stop drinking.
Acamprosate is marketed under the brand name Campral, and is the most recent medication approved for the treatment of alcoholism and alcohol dependence in the United States. Campral is taken in the form of an oral pill, three times a day.
Disulfiram was the first medication approved in the United States for the treatment of alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse.
It was approved for the treatment of alcoholism more than five decades ago, making it the oldest drug for treating alcohol dependence. It is an aversion medicine that works by triggering a severe adverse reaction when combined with drinking alcohol.
Disulfiram is sold under the brand name Antabuse. As it interferes with the metabolism of alcohol, Disulfiram provokes intensely unpleasant physical symptoms when ingested with alcohol, including:
- difficulty breathing
- heart palpitations
- and blurred vision.
Disulfiram is used once the alcohol detox phase is over, and the individual is no longer drinking. This medication is intended for individuals who have already stopped drinking and are focused on maintaining their sobriety.
Other types of medications can be used in conjunction with the above and in combination with a comprehensive alcohol dependence treatment program.
While not approved by the FDA for the treatment of alcoholism, researchers suggest that anti-seizure medications, such as Topiramate, may be useful in reducing both anxiety and cravings experienced when recovering from alcohol dependence.
In addition, antidepressants can be helpful in controlling underlying conditions of depression or anxiety that may appear after some period of alcohol abstinence.
An antispasmodic and muscle relaxant drug called Baclofen (Lioresal) is also being studied for its benefit in helping maintain alcohol abstinence, especially in individuals who have alcoholic cirrhosis.
Comprehensive Treatment Approaches
Because an individual that has had a dependency on alcohol is susceptible to relapse, the best approach for the treatment of alcohol dependence and alcoholism is a comprehensive, broad-based treatment plan.
That plan may include group therapy, detox, medicines, cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, 12-step programs, and education programs to learn coping skills.