Medications for Alcoholism

Alcohol abuse is a serious public health risk in the United States, causing approximately 80,000 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to the lives lost, alcoholism leaves a trail of destruction in the form of chronic health problems, broken homes, unemployment, violence, incarceration and homelessness.

In spite of its devastating effects, alcohol dependence is widespread in the US. Statistics published by the Washington Post indicate that approximately 30 percent of Americans have had a problem with alcohol at some point in their lives, and that 12.5 percent of these individuals are dependent on alcohol. Medications for alcoholism have helped thousands of alcoholics overcome their addiction to this drug.

Can Medication Make Me Stop Drinking?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a single pill that could make you stop drinking, eliminate your cravings for alcohol, and keep you sober for the rest of your life? Unfortunately, no such potion currently exists. But there are several medications that can support recovery from alcoholism in the following ways:

  • By blocking the pleasurable effects of alcohol
  • By causing unpleasant side effects when you drink
  • By minimizing your cravings for alcohol
  • By helping you stay focused on recovery

If you’ve made a commitment to sobriety and you’re looking for additional help to keep that commitment, medication could be an effective part of your recovery program.

How Can I Get Medication for Alcoholism?

medication for alcoholismMedication for alcoholism is available with a doctor’s prescription and should be taken only under medical supervision. When you take medication as part of a rehab program, you may receive the drugs at an inpatient facility or an outpatient clinic. Like any other drugs, anti-alcoholism medications can cause serious, even fatal, side effects. You should never take a friend’s medication or use anti-addiction drugs that you’ve purchased online.

Anti-alcoholism drugs are not prescribed to patients who are actively abusing alcohol; they are intended for alcoholics who are motivated to stay sober and who have already stopped drinking. Depending on the medication, you may need to be sober for 12 hours to several days before you can start taking the drug.

To give yourself the very best shot at recovery, you should take these drugs in conjunction with a comprehensive treatment program that includes psychosocial services like counseling, 12-step meetings, mutual support groups and family therapy.

FDA-Approved Drugs for Alcoholism

So far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only three medications for alcoholism, but research continues to find new pharmaceutical solutions for this disease. If you enter a comprehensive rehab program for alcohol abuse, you may have the opportunity to take one of these FDA-approved medications:


Sold under the brand name Antabuse, disulfiram is the oldest of the anti-alcoholism medications. First synthesized in the 1920s, disulfiram was first approved for the medical treatment of alcoholism in Europe in 1949. Antabuse is taken every day by mouth to discourage the alcoholic from drinking. The drug causes severe reactions to alcohol by blocking the breakdown of an enzyme in the body called acetaldehyde. If you drink when you’re taking Antabuse, you can experience side effects that range from unpleasant to fatal, including nausea and vomiting, chest pain, headaches, sweating, a rapid heartbeat, dizziness and confusion. The more serious potential side effects include breathing problems, heart failure, seizures and death. When it’s used by alcoholics who are strongly motivated to quit drinking, Antabuse can help promote abstinence, but the medication should only be taken under medical supervision.

Available as an oral medication or as an injection, naltrexone is sold under several trade names, including Vivitrol and ReVia. The drug was approved for use in alcoholism treatment in 1994. Naltrexone belongs to a family of drugs called opiate antagonists, which interfere with the pleasurable sensations caused by alcohol and opioid drugs. When you take naltrexone, alcohol will no longer make you feel as good as it once did, which may reduce your cravings and help you stay sober. Oral forms of naltrexone must be taken on a regular basis, usually once a day or once every two to three days, to be effective. Injectable forms of this medication may be taken every few weeks. Alcoholics who have trouble complying with treatment may find that the injections help them stay on track with their recovery goals. Although naltrexone can cause serious complications, like liver damage, side effects are not as severe as with disulfiram.

Sold under the trade name Campral, acamprosate is one of the newer drugs for alcoholism. The FDA approved acamprosate for use in the treatment of alcohol dependence in 2004. Acamprosate works by restoring healthy brain function in chronic alcoholics, so that they have a better chance of remaining abstinent. According to the journal Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, there is some evidence that acamprosate may protect the brain from the neurological damage caused by alcohol withdrawal. This medication is taken orally and sometimes prescribed along with naltrexone. The side effects of acamprosate are generally mild. Taking the drug for an extended period of time may cause digestive problems, fatigue, weakness or confusion.

Scientists are constantly exploring new drugs that will help counteract the effects of alcohol dependence. A study performed by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco showed that chlorzoxazone, a medication that has been approved for use as a muscle relaxant, may also be effective at treating alcoholism. In animal test subjects, chlorzoxazone was found to reduce the effects of alcohol on the brain, which could make drinking less rewarding.

How Effective Is Medication for Alcoholism?

There is no medication that can “cure” alcoholism. Medication should be only one of the tools you use to support your recovery. In addition to pharmacological support, you need help from counselors, peers, support groups and family members. Only a comprehensive addiction treatment program can provide a full set of resources to help you maintain sobriety.

Statistics on the effectiveness of alcoholism medication show varied results. In a study of alcoholics who were taking Antabuse as part of an outpatient rehabilitation program, 46 percent of the group reported using alcohol while they were taking the medication. This study, which appeared in Neuropharmacology, indicates that Antabuse alone is not a guaranteed deterrent against drinking.

According to a survey published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, only 13 percent of addiction medicine specialists were prescribing naltrexone to their alcoholic patients. Out of that number, 23 percent of the physicians said that they did not prescribe the medication because they believed their patients would not comply with naltrexone therapy. Another 21 percent reported that they did not prescribe naltrexone because their patients couldn’t afford the medication. However, doctors who had been educated on the benefits of naltrexone were more likely to prescribe the medication to their alcoholic patients.

Will Alcoholism Medication Work for Me?

guyOnly you and your treatment team can decide whether medication can help you stay sober. But there are a few factors that may make a difference in your decision to use pharmaceutical products in your treatment plan:

  • Whether you’re motivated to comply with treatment
  • Whether you have health complications that could interfere with medication
  • Whether you’re willing to participate in a complete rehabilitation program
  • Whether you’ve tried anti-addiction medication in the past

The addiction specialists at Axis Residential Treatment will work with you to develop a plan that’s tailored to your needs. In addition to providing support for medication therapy, we offer a full range of recovery resources at our residential treatment facilities. When you’re ready to make a commitment to sobriety, we’re here to answer your questions and give you the help you need to get started.