A Review of Current Medications Used to Treat Alcoholism

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Many chronic drinkers have bemoaned, “If only I could just take a magic pill so I could stop drinking!” Thankfully, those in the medical field recognize what a cunning, baffling and powerful disease alcoholism truly is. Although modern scientists have yet to discover the highly coveted magic pill, they’re working on it. This article includes a comprehensive review of six medications used to treat alcohol abuse. We’re going to talk about:

  • Antabuse
  • Naltrexone
  • Campral
  • Topomax
  • Baclofen
  • Nalmefene

But first, let’s learn a little bit more about the disease of alcoholism.

Alcohol May Be Legal, But Don’t Be Fooled – Alcohol is a Drug

If you suffer from the disease of alcoholism, you know what a terrible illness it is. Alcohol abuse not only destroys the alcoholic, it devastates the family unit and continues to degrade the very fabric of the society we live in. Legal problems, health issues, family difficulties, emotional upheaval, and spiritual bankruptcy all accompany alcohol addiction. This is because alcohol is a powerful drug that brings destruction and chaos to the alcoholic drinker, everyone he or she cares about, and even innocent bystanders. Sure, beer is sold at the corner store. Yes, liquor is available on almost every major thoroughfare in America. Indeed, wine is served at family restaurants. Nevertheless, alcohol is a very dangerous and addictive substance. Just because the stuff is legal, don’t be fooled. Alcohol is one of the most toxic drugs available on today’s marketplace. Yes, alcohol is a drug. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a drug is defined as a substance that causes an addiction or a change in consciousness. This certainly applies to alcohol.

Why Alcoholics Continue to Drink in Spite of the Negative Consequences

Despite many sincere efforts to stop drinking, someone who suffers from alcohol dependence will return again and again to the bottle, only to make a sincere effort to stop again (only to return to the bottle once again). While some people are high-functioning alcoholics, many people lose everything in their pursuit of the next drink. Why? Why would someone continue to return again and again to the very thing that is destroying their life? Although the answer to this question is a complicated one, we’ll try to provide a straight forward explanation. First, it is important to recognize that alcoholism is a complex brain disease. Alcohol abuse is not an issue of morality. It is not a matter of willpower. If you have a problem with alcohol, it doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It means you are a sick person who needs help – not a moral degenerate who should be punished. Second, for someone with the disease of alcoholism, alcohol addiction is explained by the phenomenon of craving. Basically, alcoholics are allergic to alcohol. Introducing beer, wine, or liquor into the alcoholic brain sets off a chemical reaction that is beyond the drinker’s control. This chemical reaction causes extreme physical cravings that are basically impossible to ignore or resist. These cravings are so intense, the alcoholic will lose all reasoning skills and pursue the next drink at all cost. Essentially, the all-consuming desire to drink drives the alcoholic back to bottle every single time – despite his or her sincere desire to stay sober. Finally, alcoholism is explained as a disease marked by obsession and compulsion. Those who abuse alcohol are mentally obsessed with thoughts of drinking and compelled to turn those thoughts into a reality by consuming alcohol regardless of the consequences. Obsession and compulsion, coupled with the phenomenon of craving, is what keeps an alcoholic in the throes of their addiction.

The Long-Term Effects of Alcoholism – Dry Up Now or Get Wet Brain Later

Most people are surprised to learn that alcohol causes more overall damage to the body than any other drug. This includes heroin, cocaine, and even meth. Alcohol slowly degrades every organ in the body over time and long-term alcohol abuse can bring about life-threatening conditions that are untreatable. Liver disease, kidney failure, and heart disease are all very real outcomes for people who abuse alcohol over an extended period. Those who consume large quantities of alcohol for many years inevitably wind up with some kind of debilitating health problem. Make no mistake – if you continue to consume massive quantities of alcohol, your body and your brain will fall into ill health. This is not a possibility. It is a one hundred percent guarantee. Among the most terrifying of all alcohol-related disorders is wet brain. Wet brain, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is the name given to a type of brain damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Wet brain can lead to psychosis, dementia, coma, and even death. People who have wet brain live in a disorienting state of consciousness. Sadly, they have drunk themselves into a permanent stupor. The only way to avoid wet brain and other alcohol related disorders is cease all alcohol consumption…… NOW. For many, this is easier said than done. Quitting alcohol when you’re addicted to the stuff can feel impossible. Remember those cravings we talked about? They are going to fight you every step of the way as you fight to stay sober. The good news is, quitting drinking is not impossible. You can do it. And, thankfully, there are medicinal solutions available to help you find sobriety if you’re ready to stop drinking.

Modern Medicine Makes Advancements to Cure Alcoholism with Prescription Medications

For more than fifty years, pharmaceutical companies have been working feverishly to end alcoholism by way of chemistry. Many substance abuse specialists believe that modern medicine will ultimately put an end to the problem of addiction altogether by means of medication. This, of course, includes alcoholism. We’re not talking about medications that treat withdrawal symptoms for alcohol. Although there are certain meds that treat alcohol withdrawal, this article does not discuss those medications. The purpose of this commentary is to review the current medications available to treat alcoholism itself. The interesting thing about the medications currently prescribed to treat alcohol abuse is that most of them were not designed to treat the condition. Almost all of the prescription medications we’re about to discuss were developed for something else entirely. However; it has been discovered that they have positive effects for those who are addicted to alcohol. Additionally, it is important to note that some of the medications reviewed in this article are not FDA-approved for the treatment of alcohol dependence. Although they may be prescribed for alcoholism, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet given some of these meds its stamp of approval for treating alcohol abuse. Currently, only three medications on the market are FDA-approved to treat alcohol addiction. Here is a review of six medications prescribed to treat alcohol dependence.

Alcohol Might Make You Sick, But Antabuse Will Make You Sicker

Antabuse (also known as Disulfiram) is a medication given to alcoholics to motivate them to stay away from alcohol by making them very, very sick if they drink. It has been on the market for more than fifty years, making it the oldest drug on the market for treating alcoholism. It was the first medication to be FDA-approved for treating alcohol dependence. Antabuse works by blocking an enzyme in the liver that metabolizes alcohol. This causes alcohol to build up in the bloodstream. The result? Hours and hours of endless, ongoing, horrific, never-ending vomiting and diarrhea if you introduce alcohol into the body while you are taking the medication. Sound like fun? Didn’t think so. Antabuse is given to people who have made the commitment to stop drinking. It should not be taken until someone has been without alcohol for at least 12 hours. When someone who abuses alcohol is given Antabuse, they are told how sick they will become if they make the decision to consume alcohol. The idea here is that fear of what the medication will do will cause the alcoholic to steer clear of alcohol. Of course, most alcoholics have made – and broken – many commitments to quit drinking alcohol by the time they start taking Antabuse. Chances are, when they start taking Antabuse, they are going to drink again…….and, when they drink, they are guaranteed to get sick. Once the effects of the Antabuse wear off, the alcoholic will realize they never want to feel that way again. They will associate alcohol with extreme physical illness and not want to drink again. So, Antabuse works in two ways. First, it is supposed to discourage people from drinking for fear of getting sick. Second, it is supposed to cause the alcoholic drinker to get so sick that they will associate alcohol with a negative experience so severe that they will no longer want to drink. Pretty clever. What’s not clever is the cost. Antabuse runs about $117 a month. Considering Antabuse? You might want to know about the side effects:

  • Skin rash
  • Acne
  • Sexual performance problems
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Metallic taste in the mouth

By the way, it is important to remember that even a small amount of alcohol can have an adverse reaction with Antabuse. If you take this medication, you should discontinue products like mouthwash, cough medicine, and aftershave.

A Little Bit of Naltrexone Will Mess Up Your Drinking

There is a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous that goes a little something like this, “A little bit of AA will mess up your drinking.” Well, the same is true for the prescription drug Naltrexone (also called ‎Revia or Vivitrol). If you’re abusing alcohol, and you take this medication, it will mess up your drinking. This is because Naltrexone has been proven to reduce cravings for alcohol in those who have a propensity to abuse beer, wine, and liquor. This is great news! We have already explained that overwhelming cravings and the obsession and compulsion to drink alcohol is what drives alcohol abuse. Naltrexone helps address these components of alcoholism by interrupting the natural process of the alcoholic brain and effectively numbing cravings and putting an end to the obsessive-compulsive cycle. Research studies have shown alcoholics who take Naltrexone were able to stay sober longer than those who did not. Naltrexone was the second medication to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating alcoholism. It belongs to a group of medications known as opiate antagonists. The main purpose of Naltrexone is to treat opiate addicts who are addicted to drugs like Hydrocodone, Fentanyl, and Oxycodone. However; the drug also works to treat those who have a problem with alcohol dependence. The average dose is 50 milligrams per day. If you are considering taking Naltrexone, it is important that you know the side effects. Here are a few:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Stomach cramps
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiety
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • A decrease in energy

A month month’s supply of Naltrexone typically runs about $30.

Campral is a Medication Prescribed by Doctors for Alcohol Dependence

In 2004, Campral (also referred to as “Acamprosate”) became the third prescription drug in the United States to receive FDA approval for the treatment of alcoholism. So far, no medications other than Antabuse, Naltrexone, and Campral have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating alcohol dependence. Campral is prescribed specifically and solely for the purpose of treating alcoholism. It is not prescribed for anything else. Although it is not clear how Campral works on neurotransmitters in the brain, it has proven to decrease cravings in the alcoholic drinker. It restores the chemicals in the brain that have been negatively affected by long-term drinking. Research studies have proven that heavy drinkers who took Campral demonstrated longer, continued periods of sobriety compared to those who did not. Campral is prescribed after a person has undergone detoxification and made the commitment to stay sober. This medication is not prescribed to someone while they are still drinking. Campral is not intended for long-term use. Fifty percent of all alcoholics who take Campral to treat alcohol abuse stop taking the medication within the first year of sobriety. A one-month supply (180 tablets) of Campral is priced at approximately $125. This may sound costly, but it’s a small price to pay when you compare it to the high cost of alcoholism. The typical dosage for Campral is 666 milligrams daily – or two tablets three times daily. (For some that 666 number might be troubling. What’s more troubling is a life addicted to alcohol.) Here are some side effects for Campral:

  • Physical pain throughout the body
  • Loss of appetite
  • A sense of physical weakness
  • Nausea
  • Gas
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiety
  • Itchiness of the skin
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Dry mouth
  • Numbness

Topomax – Could it Be a New Cure for Alcoholism?

Topomax (AKA “Topiramate”) is an anti-seizure medication. Only in recent years have doctors begun prescribing Topomax to treat alcohol dependence. Excessive alcohol consumption causes disruptions to a number of neurotransmitter systems in the brain. These include gamma-aminobutyric acid, glutamate, dopamine, and norepinephrine. (Whew! Those are some big words! But who cares…. as long at the stuff works!) Topomax works to restore the proper workings of these neurotransmitters to get the brain to a place of wellness again. This helps with the process of recovery and makes achieving sobriety much easier. Additionally, like Campral and Naltrexone, Topomax works to reduce cravings in the alcoholic drinker. Typically, those who take this medication will start out on a relatively lose dose like 50 milligrams. The prescribing doctor may slowly increase the dosage if the patient feels the medication is not working. However; most people who take Topomax never take more than 150 mg per day. Although it has not yet been approved by the FDA for the treatment of alcohol abuse, Topomax is showing real promise. Many doctors report that the medication works better than Naltrexone and Campral. Here are some of the side effects of Topomax:

  • Fatigue
  • Drowsiness
  • Weight loss
  • Anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Coordination problems
  • Diarrhea
  • Changes in vision
  • Slowed thinking
  • Memory problems

A month’s supply of Topomax is about $20.

Baclofen is Prescribed for Back Problems, But it May Make You Back Away From Alcohol

Baclofen (commonly called Kemstro or Lioresal) is a little bit different than medications we have previously mentioned to treat alcohol abuse. It is a muscle relaxer. Originally, Baclofen was prescribed to treat epilepsy. Baclofen is an anti-spastic agent prescribed by doctors to treat the symptoms caused by multiple sclerosis including severe pain, muscle spasms, and muscle rigidity. It is also used to treat back problems and spinal cord injuries and diseases. High doses of Baclofen are being used to treat alcoholism. The average dose is about 180 milligrams per day. Those who commit to the medication regime say they simply do not think about alcohol or have any cravings for the bottle. Many are saying Baclofen is a miracle medication for treating alcohol dependence. The medication works to relax the mind to keep problem drinkers from engaging in the obsessive-compulsive cycle that drives alcoholism. The problem with Baclofen is that it can lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction. If you decide to take this medication for alcohol abuse, you should proceed with caution. You don’t want to give up alcohol only to find yourself addicted to a muscle relaxer. Keep in mind, like with any medication, Baclofen has some side effects. Here are just a few:

  • Headaches
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Constipation

A month’s prescription for Baclofen is only about $11. It is not FDA approved for alcohol addiction.

Nalmefene – Another Prescription Medication that Shows Promise for Alcohol Treatment

Nalmefene (also referred to as Selincro) is another prescription medication that is classified as an opioid antagonist. It works on the opioid receptor sites in the brain. Nalmefene is prescribed to opioid addicts to help them stop taking opioids. It is now also given to alcoholics to help them maintain sobriety. In addition to blocking opioid receptors, Nalmefene helps the brain produce the chemical dopamine. This is a feel-good chemical that assists in combating depression. Depression often motivates someone with an alcohol problem to return to the bottle in the early days of sobriety. When someone who has a problem with alcohol dependence feels good, the cravings for alcohol are diminished. Nalmefene is different from the other prescription medications listed in this review because you can drink while taking it. Doctors tell patients to take the medication one to two hours before consuming alcohol. It has been proven to significantly diminish the amount of alcohol that will be consumed. This lowers the probability for binge drinking. Of course, we recommend abstinence from alcohol and insist this is the only way to truly recover from alcoholism. The typical dose for Nalmefene is one 100 mg tablet daily. A month’s supply of Nalmefene is about $32. Here are the side effects for Nalmefene:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hypertension
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Dizziness

Medication AND Rehabilitation is What Will Keep You Sober

Treating alcoholism is about more than taking one of these not-so-magic pills. You can’t just pop one of these pills, sit back, and wait for your alcoholism to be cured. It just doesn’t work that way. You are going to have to do some work. Keep in mind that there are two phases to treating alcoholism – detox and rehabilitation. First, you have to detox from alcohol and get the poison out of your body. Secondly, you are going to have to get treatment for the disease of alcoholism. This happens by getting educated about the disease and through working the 12-Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous. If you are an alcoholic, you shouldn’t try to quit drinking on your own. Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. During the first phase of alcohol withdrawal treatment, you will undergo a supervised medical detoxification process. This happens at a healthcare facility like a hospital or an in-patient rehabilitation center. You will be administered medication to safely and comfortably withdrawal from alcohol. Your progress with be evaluated and monitored closely. During the second phase of treatment, you will be educated about your illness, taught coping strategies, and work with your family to find out what skills you need to incorporate into your daily life to stay sober. What are you waiting for? Talk to your doctor or an addiction specialist about getting the help you need today.