Three medications are approved to treat alcoholism: disulfiram, naltrexone and acamprosate. None of the drugs treat behavioral problems associated with addiction, but each can help you quit drinking. Other drugs are sometimes used to treat alcohol addiction, including medications that may help with cravings, seizures and delirium tremens.
Medications used to treat alcohol addiction work in different ways. Disulfiram causes unpleasant reactions when combined with alcohol. Naltrexone reduces cravings for alcohol and prevents pleasurable effects caused by drinking. Acamprosate curbs cravings for alcohol.
Each drug is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, when used in combination with behavioral therapy and other support services. These three alcohol medications comes in pill form, and naltrexone also comes in injectable form.
Brand-name medications that are safe and effective for treating alcoholism include:
Other drugs, such as Topamax (topiramate) or Valium (diazepam), may be prescribed to relieve some symptoms of withdrawal. Topamax and other anticonvulsants can relieve seizures associated with alcohol withdrawal. Benzodiazepines such as Valium can treat a serious withdrawal symptom called delirium tremens, according to a guide on medications for alcohol use disorder created by the federal government.
When a person addicted to alcohol quits drinking, the brain craves the substance. Cravings can increase the risk of relapse, but many medications can reduce urges to drink.
In addition to blocking the pleasurable effects caused by alcohol, naltrexone can curb cravings for the substance. A naltrexone pill is taken daily to relieve cravings, and the injectable form is taken monthly. Naltrexone is most effective in patients who have shown an ability to quit drinking before they receive the medication, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Chronic alcohol use disrupts brain chemistry. Acamprosate helps normalize brain chemistry, which reduces cravings. Doctors prescribe acamprosate after a person is finished with withdrawal. The drug may not be effective if you take it while drinking alcohol, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Topiramate may reduce cravings for alcohol even if a patient is still drinking when he or she takes it. Numerous studies support its safety and effectiveness, according to a 2015 review published in the journal CNS Drugs. Doctors can legally prescribe the drug to reduce cravings for alcohol, but the FDA has not approved it for alcoholism.
Medications used during alcohol detox treat symptoms of withdrawal, but they don’t prevent withdrawal. The only way to prevent alcohol withdrawal is to drink alcohol.
Some types of drug withdrawal can be prevented with medication. For example, heroin withdrawal occurs when parts of the brain called receptors don’t receive heroin. Suboxone (buprenorphine) is a medication that attaches to the same receptors that heroin attaches to, preventing withdrawal.
No known medication can prevent alcoholics from going into withdrawal when they don’t drink, but some medications can relieve symptoms of withdrawal to make it more comfortable.
Benzodiazepines are prescription drugs used to treat anxiety, insomnia and seizures. The class of drugs, which includes Valium, Xanax (alprazolam) and Klonopin (clonazepam), is often considered the first approach to alcohol withdrawal treatment. Benzos can treat seizures and delirium tremens, the most serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
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Adrenergic medications, such as Catapres (clonidine) and Precedex (dexmedetomidine), may relieve some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, including elevated pulse and high blood pressure. The class of drugs is also referred to as alpha-2 agonists. They’re generally used to treat minor withdrawal symptoms, and they’re often prescribed alongside benzodiazepines.
Anticonvulsants, or anti-seizure medications, can be used as alternatives to benzodiazepines to treat or prevent seizures caused by alcohol withdrawal. However, they are less likely to prevent delirium tremens. Anticonvulsants used during alcohol withdrawal include Tegretol (carbamazepine) and Depakene (valproic acid).
Several types of medications are used during treatment for alcoholism. Medication-assisted treatments for alcohol addiction, such as disulfiram and naltrexone, aid recovery when used alongside therapy. Other medications can relieve withdrawal symptoms during detox.