What Medications Are Used to Treat Alcoholism?

Medically Reviewed on 10/5/2021

How do I know if I am an alcoholic?

Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder is a medical condition in which you consume progressively larger amounts of alcohol. It is a condition that can be chronic and have other serious social, familial, and medical consequences. However, there are many different treatments, including medications that you can take to address your alcohol use disorder. Read more to learn more about them.

The criteria for alcoholism is whether or not you have displayed at least two of the following symptoms in the past year:

  • You drink more alcohol or drink for longer periods than you intend.
  • You want to cut down or be more in control of your drinking but are unable to.
  • A lot of your time goes towards trying to find, use or recover from alcohol.
  • You crave alcohol.
  • Often, your frequent alcohol use gets in the way of fulfilling your responsibilities at home, school, or work.
  • Despite the issues alcohol causes in your life, you still drink in the same way.
  • You have given up activities or professional responsibilities to drink alcohol.
  • Through alcohol use, you put yourself in dangerous situations.
  • Even if you have a psychological or physical issue sensitive to your alcohol use, you continue to drink.
  • Alcohol doesn’t affect you as it used to, and you need to drink more to feel its effects.
  • You have experienced alcohol withdrawal.

Getting a prescription for alcoholism

For people who want to stop their alcohol dependence, some medications are on the market that they can take to alleviate some of the difficulties. However, medicines have been found to be most effective when taken in combination with behavioral support in the form of mental health care.

Some of the medications you could be prescribed are:

  • Naltrexone. Naltrexone blocks the opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors play a role in how you feel the alcohol and your cravings. It can reduce the chances of you relapsing within your first three months to around 36%. It is most effective to reduce heavy drinking rather than achieve sobriety. It can be taken orally or be injected.
  • Topiramate. Topiramate is believed to affect your neurotransmitters. It is taken over time and its effect slowly increases. It is helpful for people who want to be abstinent and people who want to reduce their heavy drinking. Topiramate was tested on people who were still drinking at the beginning of treatment. It was found to be one of the most effective medications. It is taken orally through pills.
  • Acamprosate. Using your GABA and other neurotransmitters systems, acamprosate helps reduce insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, and other withdrawal systems. It is taken orally three times a day. It has been found to be effective for people who want to stop drinking altogether.
  • Disulfiram. This medication creates adverse reactions such as flushing, nausea, and heart palpitations if you drink alcohol. It is taken once a day orally. The effectiveness of it is quite mixed. Generally, it is most effective when you are given it in a controlled environment rather than used at your own discretion.

The highest risk of relapse is in the first six months to a year. After that, the danger is greatly diminished over the next several years. Usually, medication is recommended at least for the initial first three months of not drinking alcohol. Unfortunately, however, there is no one treatment plan or course of action.

Every person’s treatment journey is different. If one medication doesn’t work, you might try another. However, there has been no scientific proof that taking multiple medications at the same time improves outcomes.

Medication management support

After you get prescribed medication for your alcohol use disorder, you will need follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider. Usually, you see this provider at the beginning of your treatment and continue as long as you take the medication. Your physician will monitor your levels of drinking, well-being, and how the medication is affecting you.

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Medically Reviewed on 10/5/2021
References
American Addiction Centers: Alcoholism Treatment: "Alcohol Addiction and How to Treat Alcoholism."

American Family Physician: "Medications for Alcohol Use Disorder."

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: "Helping Patients Who Drink Too Much: A Clinician's Guide."