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Medication Options

Medication to Stop Drinking

Although there is no known medical cure for the alcoholic condition – that is there is no pill or medicine which can cure alcoholism, or return the drinker to their pre-alcoholic state – there are medications which are used during the treatment of alcoholism in certain cases.

These medications are only prescribed by a doctor or other health professional, and are usually used in conjunction with other remedial measures, such as therapy, counselling and support groups.

The most common medications currently associated with the treatment of alcoholism are summarised below.

Disulfiram

Antibuse medicationAlso know by the trade name Antibuse, this is a medicine which, when taken regularly will produce a severe and unpleasant reaction if any alcohol is consumed. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, flushing, palpitations, headaches and increased heart rate, and the onset of symptoms occurs very quickly after a single drink. Effectively this is like having the mother of all hangovers, and it can last from 30 minutes to several hours.

For this reason, disulfiram is only prescribed once the drinker has undergone a successful detox, and is completely free of alcohol in the body.

The way this medicine works is by acting as a deterrent against drinking – as the recovering drinker is aware of the effects that doing so would have on them they generally steer clear. Obviously this requires discipline on the part of the drinker to take the medicine each day, but if this is done first thing in the morning when (theoretically) temptation is at its lowest, then this prevents the drinker from lapsing throughout the rest of the day.

The idea is that this gives the recovering drinker a helping hand during the early days of recovery as they make the adjustments that are needed to remain abstinent. For some people, taking the pills means that the decision to drink is taken out of their hands, which helps them to get through moments of weakness.

However, disulfiram does not reduce the cravings for alcohol, and if the drinker is determined to drink, or cannot control the cravings they can, of course, simply stop taking the drug. For this reason a major problem associated with the use of this drug is extremely poor compliance.

Acamprosate

Also known by the trade name Campral, this medicine is prescribed to maintain abstinence, or to help drinkers who have already stopped from returning to drinking again. Taken during the maintenance phase of recovery (ie after detox) it reduces the desire to drink alcohol even though the person is known to be alcohol dependent (or alcoholic).

Campral medicationIt is unclear exactly how this drug works, however it is known that drinking in large quantities over a long period can change the way the brain functions, and Acamprosate works by helping the brain to recover and function normally again.

However, Acamprosate is only effective whilst the person is abstinent from alcohol or other drugs, and it does not prevent the withdrawal symptoms that occur when they stop drinking alcohol.

Acamprosate is not effective in maintaining abstinence for everyone who takes it, although it is thought to be most effective with people who report that anxiety has been a major reason for relapsing in the past.

Naltrexone

Naltrexone is a medicine that reduces the desire, or urge for alcohol after the drinker has become abstinent, thereby helping them to remain abstinent. It works by blocking “pleasure receptors” in the brain which are activated by alcohol and which cause the elated or “high” feeling. Therefore drinking becomes much less pleasurable and the person feels less need to drink. By reducing the pleasurable effects obtained from drinking alcohol Naltrexone is also thought to be effective in reducing the overall consumption of those who do not manage complete abstinence.

Unlike disulfiram, naltrexone does not have any adverse effect if you drink alcohol while taking it.

Further Information on Medication

If you believe you would benefit from any of the above medications for the treatment of alcohol dependence, you should consult with your GP or Specialist Alcohol Team in the first instance. It is most likely that if you are prescribed medication it will be as a part of an integrated program of recovery including therapy, counselling and support group participation.

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