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Medications Used to Treat Alcoholism: Alcohol Medication

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Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 6/23/2022

There are many treatment modalities for alcohol abuse disorder (AUD). Treating alcohol addiction can require therapy, medications, and even medically-supervised detox programs. There are a handful of medications that have been approved by the FDA for alcoholism treatment. Some of these medications can help with long-term alcohol abuse, while other medications help with short-term alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol medication also has several uses. Some medications make the intoxicating effects of alcohol less desirable, while others can treat the discomfort caused by withdrawal (like the shakes or tremors). While medication that’s used to treat alcoholism is effective, it can also have side effects.

Read on to learn more about the medications for alcoholism.

1. Acamprosate (Campral)

Acamprosate is a medication that makes the intoxicating effects of alcohol less desirable. It belongs to a family of medications known as organosulfur compounds because it’s a sulfonic acid. One of the most popular brands of acamprosate is Campral, which is used for alcohol abuse disorder.

Acamprosate requires a prescription from a doctor and can be used for short-term addiction treatment or long-term sobriety. Depending on the person, acamprosate can be helpful for reducing alcohol cravings causing discomfort when alcohol is consumed.

There are some side effects that occur when mixing acamprosate and alcohol. These side effects include headaches, stomach discomfort, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. Acamprosate can also cause side effects without being mixed with alcohol. While rare, the side effects of acamprosate include depression, anxiety, and an increased risk of suicidal thoughts. Acamprosate can also cause changes to a person’s mood but some of these side effects are correlated with alcohol withdrawal.

2. Disulfiram (Antabuse)

Disulfiram is similar to acamprosate because when taken with alcohol it makes the intoxicating effects of alcohol less desirable. The most common brand name for disulfiram is Antabuse, which can be prescribed by a medical professional. Antabuse is commonly used for people who are going through alcohol withdrawal because it limits alcohol cravings. 

Disulfiram can also be found within inpatient rehab centers where individuals are isolated from alcohol for long periods. Some outpatient treatment programs may also use Antabuse but it’s less common. Moreover, Antabuse is not an addictive substance. So, it’s easy for people to stop taking Antabuse once the prescription is completed.

While Antabuse is effective at treating alcohol abuse disorder, side effects may occur. Some common side effects include dry mouth, acne, fatigue, headaches, and stomach discomfort. Most side effects subside after a few days or weeks of Antabuse use. However, if side effects do not go away or get worse, it’s important to contact a medical professional.

3. Naltrexone (Revia, Vivitrol)

Naltrexone is an FDA-approved medication that’s used to treat alcoholism. Additionally, Naltrexone can be used to treat opioid addiction. Some common name brands of Naltrexone include Revia and Vivitrol. Revia and Vivitrol are prescribed to individuals who struggle with alcohol cravings. The medication can also be used during the withdrawal process to reduce cravings when withdrawal symptoms worsen.

Medications like Revia and Vivitrol can also be used for alternative treatment methods. For example, the Sinclair Method treats alcohol abuse disorder with Naltrexone. The Sinclair Method has an 80% success rate (on average) but does not require participants to quit drinking. Instead, Naltrexone is used to limit drinking to prevent addiction.

While Naltrexone is effective at reducing alcohol cravings, there are some potential side effects. These side effects include stomach cramps (abdominal pain), fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and anxiety. Some side effects of Naltrexone can be severe, especially when linked to depression. You should consult with a doctor if you experience suicidal thoughts after taking medications like Vivitrol and Revia.

4. Topiramate (Topamax, Trokendi XR, Qudexy XR) 

Topiramate is a prescription medication that’s used to treat severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Unlike other alcohol medications like Naltrexone, topiramate does not reduce alcohol cravings. Instead, it’s an anticonvulsant used to help people manage tremors and seizures during alcohol withdrawal. Topiramate can also be used to treat nerve pain.

Furthermore, topiramate can treat other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. For example, it can help people manage migraines and even epilepsy. Depending on the severity of alcohol withdrawal, topiramate can be a life-saving medication. Topiramate is essential if an individual has symptoms of delirium tremens, which can be fatal. For these reasons, topiramate is used during inpatient alcohol rehab and for medically-assisted detox programs.

The common name brands for topiramate include Topamax, Trokendi and Qudexy. Trokendi and Qudexy are extended release (XR) medications that remain in the body for several hours (up to 12). Some side effects of topiramate include trouble with vision (blurred or darkened), clumsiness, rolling eye movements, fatigue, eye pain, eye redness, and tingling sensations. Some people also report burning and prickling sensations.

What to Know About More Treatment of Alcoholism?

Alcohol abuse disorder (AUD) can be treated in more ways than one. While medications for alcohol addiction are effective, most medications are combined with other treatment modalities. For example, medications like Antabuse work well with Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and Dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT). 

Medications like Naltrexone can also increase the success rate of addiction treatment programs, which is why many inpatient rehab centers offer medically-assisted treatment (MAT). In some cases, medications like Topamax are essential for severe cases of alcohol withdrawal. Because severe symptoms of withdrawal can lead to death, medications like Topamax can be life-saving.

Depending on the individual, one or more medications can be prescribed. In some cases, Qudexy XR might be prescribed during the withdrawal period and replaced with Antabuse once severe symptoms of withdrawal subside. There are also entire treatment programs dedicated to medications like Naltrexone. One example is the Sinclair Method, which helps people control their drinking.

That said, there are a few factors to consider when taking medications for alcoholism. First and foremost, individuals need to consider insurance coverage. Some prescriptions can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to fill, so getting insurance to cover the prescription can provide financial relief. Understanding the side effects of medications for alcohol can also help people avoid life-threatening complications.

Always consult with your doctor before taking medications for alcohol abuse. Also, make sure you speak with your doctor about any side effects that don’t go away over time. If side effects get worse you should stop taking the medication.

What are the Symptoms of an Alcohol Problem?

The symptoms of an alcohol problem can vary based on the individual. Still, there are some common symptoms and habits that people who have an alcohol problem share. Depending on the person, the most common signs of an alcohol problem are frequent drinking, drinking alone, and changes in mood. It’s also common for alcoholics to become isolated because of a decline in social relationships. Even school and work can be impacted by an alcohol problem.

Below is a list of symptoms and signs of alcoholism.

  • Frequent alcohol consumption
  • Binge drinking
  • Frequently visiting bars and clubs 
  • New friends
  • Isolation
  • Financial problems
  • Decreased efficiency at work
  • Drinking alcohol alone
  • Drinking alcohol in secret
  • A noticeable decline in health
  • Fluctuations in weight (weight gain or weight loss)
  • Family problems

In some cases, some people can be functional alcoholics. Functional alcoholics don’t exhibit the same signs and symptoms as other types of alcoholics. For example, functional alcoholics can maintain relationships and perform well at work. With functional alcoholics, the signs and symptoms are typically drinking daily and drinking alone.

Who is the Most At-Risk for Alcoholism?

Alcohol is an addictive substance and most people can become addicted to alcohol when it’s abused. However, some people are more at-risk of developing an alcohol abuse disorder than others. The most common variable is a gene that alters the way GABA receptors work in the brain. Therefore, alcohol abuse can be hereditary. So, people with alcoholic parents are the most at-risk for alcoholism.

Some other at-risk groups are listed below.

  • People who are under a lot of stress
  • People who just lost a loved one 
  • Individuals who abuse other substances
  • Underage drinkers
  • People with a family history of alcohol abuse 
  • Individuals who struggle with poverty

While these groups have the highest risk of developing an alcohol abuse disorder, anyone can become addicted to alcohol when it’s consumed daily. It’s also important to note that binge drinking is also a variation of alcoholism. Therefore, college-age adults also have an elevated risk of developing alcoholism.

How Long Does it Take to Recover from Drinking?

On average, it takes between 30 and 90 days to recover from an alcohol addiction. Depending on the person, it can also take longer than 90 days to recover from alcohol abuse disorder. In fact, sobriety is often a lifelong commitment for many people who no longer abuse alcohol. For example, people who participate in Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) are always in recovery and actively preventing relapse.

Alcohol abuse can also damage the mind and body. While many negative health effects caused by alcoholism can be reversed, sometimes conditions like fatty liver disease can take years to heal (if it heals at all). Conditions like Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome also take a few months to heal. Unfortunately, the later stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can cause permanent damage. These conditions typically develop in the late stages of alcoholism or after a person has abused alcohol for decades.

On the other hand, it does not take long to detox from alcohol. Alcohol detox can be completed in a few days or weeks. That said, some severe cases of alcohol withdrawal can take several months to fully subside. Symptoms that persist for months are typically mental health issues like mood changes, anxiety, and depression.

What are the Alternative Treatments for Alcoholism?

Medications are great for treating alcoholism, especially when medication is paired with therapy. While medications are popular for treating alcohol addiction, there are also many other methods that people use to quit drinking. These treatment methods vary and some can even be combined. 

Ultimately, the treatment that works for one person might not work for another. Therefore, alcoholism treatment is diverse and continues to evolve. In fact, new research comes out each year for alcohol abuse disorder (AUD) and how to treat it.

Several alternative alcohol treatments are listed below.

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.)
  • One-on-one counseling 
  • Group counseling
  • Family counseling
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Inpatient rehabilitation 
  • Holistic therapy (yoga, nutrition, exercise)
  • Outpatient therapy
  • The Sinclair Method

These are only some of the alternative treatments for alcoholism. Some alternative treatments can also be combined with medications for alcoholism. For example, many inpatient rehab programs can prescribe medications like Naltrexone, Antabuse, and Topamax.

Is Medicine Effective for Alcoholism?

Yes, medicine is effective for alcoholism. Some medication-based alcoholism treatment programs like the Sinclair Method have a success rate of up to 80%. Other medications like Antabuse have a similar success rate when combined with therapy and counseling. Several studies show that Antabuse has a 50% success rate when taken for at least 20 months. Additionally, the longer someone takes medication for alcoholism, the better the success rate.

Medications like Topamax are not measured in the same way. Topiramate medications are designed to make detox more comfortable and less dangerous. Therefore, they’re not used to reduce alcohol cravings or help individuals maintain sobriety. While topiramate medications can help in the short term, they’re not a long term solution for alcohol abuse disorder.

It’s important to note that medications for alcoholism don’t work well when taken without a prescription or additional treatment like counseling. Studies suggest that Naltrexone only has a 10% success rate when taken without additional therapy or counseling. Ultimately, the effectiveness of alcoholism medications can vary because it’s up to the patient to take the medication.