Alcohol Addiction Medications: What Medications Help Treat Alcohol Use Disorder?

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Last Updated - 07/06/2024

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Key Takeaways

  • Alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a significant public health issue with substantial societal costs.
  • Effective alcohol addiction treatment is multifaceted, requiring a long-term, personalized approach and integration of behavioral therapies.
  • Medications such as naltrexone, disulfiram, and acamprosate play key roles in treatment by managing withdrawal symptoms, reducing cravings, and discouraging alcohol consumption.
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse) causes adverse reactions when alcohol is consumed, deterring drinking, but comes with potential side effects and risks.
  • Naltrexone blocks opioid receptors to reduce cravings and the pleasurable effects of alcohol, with varying efficacy among individuals.
  • Acamprosate (Campral) helps restore chemical balance in the brain and is more effective at supporting continuous abstinence than reducing heavy drinking.
  • Integrating medication with behavioral therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered best practice for treating alcohol addiction.
  • Challenges in medication-based treatment include nonadherence, access to treatment, potential side effects, and ethical considerations.

The Impact of Alcohol Addiction and Importance of Treatment

Alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic condition characterized by an inability to control or cease alcohol consumption despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. 

It is a pervasive public health issue with far-reaching implications for individuals and society. It is one of the leading preventable causes of morbidity and mortality, but it doesn’t only affect the individual; it has a profound impact on families, workplaces, and communities. The societal cost is immense, with estimates of $249 billion per year in the United States alone, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

The need for medical intervention is underscored by the staggering number of individuals with AUD and the associated healthcare costs, fatalities, and broader societal harms.

Medications for Managing Alcohol Addiction

Medications play a pivotal role in the treatment of alcohol addiction, offering therapeutic benefits that can significantly improve the recovery process. These medications are designed to alleviate withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, and discourage alcohol consumption. 

It is important to note that medication is most effective when used in conjunction with behavioral therapies, as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

The most commonly prescribed medications for alcohol use disorder (AUD) are naltrexone, disulfiram, and acamprosate, each working through different mechanisms to aid in recovery.

Disulfiram (Antabuse): A Medication for Treating Alcohol Addiction 

Disulfiram interferes with alcohol metabolism, causing severe adverse reactions when alcohol is consumed, including symptoms such as facial flushing, nausea, vomiting, and palpitations. This aversive effect is intended to deter individuals from drinking alcohol. 

Despite its benefits, Disulfiram’s use comes with potential side effects and risks. It may cause liver problems, vision loss, confusion, and changes in mood or behavior. Individuals with certain medical conditions, such as heart disease, liver or kidney disease, or a history of a mental health condition, should use Disulfiram with caution. 

Additionally, this medication is contraindicated for those who have recently consumed alcohol or taken certain medications like metronidazole. Patients are advised to avoid any products containing alcohol, as the resultant Disulfiram-alcohol reaction can last up to two weeks after the last dose.

Research into Disulfiram’s mechanism of action has revealed that it irreversibly inhibits the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase, leading to the accumulation of acetaldehyde, a toxic byproduct of alcohol metabolism. This reaction forms the basis of its efficacy in discouraging alcohol consumption.

Naltrexone: A Medication for Treating Alcohol Addiction

Naltrexone, known by the brand names Revia and Vivitrol, is an FDA-approved medication for the treatment of alcohol use disorders (AUD). It functions as an opiate antagonist, blocking opioid receptors in the brain to reduce cravings and the pleasurable effects of alcohol. 

Studies have shown that naltrexone can be particularly effective when used in conjunction with other treatment modalities, such as therapy, counseling, and support groups. It is often the preferred choice for its dosing schedule and because treatment can commence while the individual is still drinking. However, the efficacy of naltrexone varies, and it has proven especially useful for individuals who have experienced relapse.

Common side effects of naltrexone include nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, muscle stiffness, cramps, headaches, sleep disruptions, anxiety, and dizziness. These side effects typically resolve over time. Caution is advised when prescribing naltrexone to patients with hepatic or renal impairment due to altered drug metabolism and excretion. Importantly, naltrexone may increase sensitivity to opioids, posing a risk of overdose if opioid use is resumed.

Acamprosate (Campral): A Medication for Treating Alcohol Addiction  

Acamprosate, known by the brand name Campral, is a medication prescribed to support individuals in maintaining abstinence from alcohol post-detoxification. It works by restoring chemical balance in the brain of those who have recently stopped drinking, although the precise mechanism of action is not fully understood. 

Acamprosate is thought to modulate glutamatergic neurotransmission, which may be disrupted due to prolonged alcohol exposure. This medication is typically initiated around five days after cessation of alcohol use and reaches full effectiveness within five to eight days of regular use.

Acamprosate’s efficacy has been demonstrated in various studies, with some suggesting it is more effective at supporting continuous abstinence than at reducing heavy drinking or cravings. It is generally well-tolerated, with a safety profile that allows for its use in long-term treatment plans. However, it is contraindicated for individuals with a known hypersensitivity to acamprosate calcium or any of its inactive ingredients.

Common side effects of Acamprosate include gastrointestinal disturbances like diarrhea, as well as potential nervous system effects such as dizziness, headache, and paresthesia. More serious side effects, though less common, may include depression and suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Other Medications for Treating Alcohol Addiction

Other medications such as topiramate and gabapentin are also used to treat AUD, but this kind of use is “off-label.” Clinical studies have shown varying degrees of success for patients prescribed these medications.  

Ultimately, the choice of medication is typically based on individual patient needs, the severity of the addiction, and any co-occurring mental health conditions. 

Integrating Medication and Behavioral Therapies for Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Integrating medication with behavioral therapies is considered a best practice in the treatment of alcohol addiction. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a widely recognized behavioral treatment that, when combined with pharmacotherapy, can enhance the overall efficacy of the treatment plan. According to a meta-analysis published by Brown University and other institutions, CBT’s efficacy is notable in treating alcohol and other drug use disorders, particularly when it is integrated with or compared to other treatments.

The combination of these therapies is designed to address multiple aspects of addiction. Medications can help to manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings, while behavioral therapies like CBT provide patients with coping strategies and skills to deal with triggers and prevent relapse. 

This dual approach is supported by research indicating that combined treatments often result in better outcomes than either treatment alone. Furthermore, the efficacy of combining pharmacotherapy and CBT has been demonstrated in various settings, suggesting that this approach can be adapted to different populations and environments. 

The goal of combining these therapies is not only to improve immediate treatment adherence and retention but also to equip patients with long-term skills for maintaining sobriety and managing the psychological aspects of addiction.

Challenges in Medication-Based Alcohol Addiction Treatment

The use of medication in treating alcohol addiction presents several challenges and limitations that can hinder its effectiveness. Despite advancements in pharmacotherapy for alcohol use disorder (AUD), there are barriers to the full integration of medications into clinical practice.

A few of the most common challenges to the use of medications for treating alcohol addiction include:  

  • Medication Nonadherence: Medication nonadherence refers to patients who do not follow their prescribed medication regimen. Factors contributing to nonadherence include personal beliefs about medications, lack of knowledge about their efficacy, and the stigma associated with taking medication for addiction treatment.
  • Access to Treatment: Data suggests that a vast majority of individuals with AUD do not receive the necessary treatment at specialized facilities. This gap in care is often due to structural barriers such as underfunding, siloed systems of care, and a lack of insurance coverage, which can prevent individuals from accessing the medications they need.
  • Potential Side Effects: Medications like Disulfiram, Naltrexone, and Acamprosate, while beneficial, are not without potential side effects, which can also deter use. The complex bio-psychosocial nature of addiction means that medications must be tailored to individual needs, requiring a nuanced approach that can be difficult to standardize across diverse populations.

Get Help for Alcohol Addiction Today

For those seeking alcohol addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Indianapolis Drug and Alcohol Rehab stands as a beacon of hope. Located within the heart of Indy, we offer a comprehensive array of treatment options, including medical detox, inpatient care, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient services. 

When you or a loved one are ready to embark on the path to recovery, our Recovery Advocates are here, ready to assist. Reach out to learn more about our tailored treatment programs, designed to cater to your specific needs and situation.


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