Alcohol use disorders affect millions of adult Americans. In order to properly address the problem, professional treatment needs to be provided.

All treatment differs, based on a number of factors, but the majority of them offer classes, support groups, and behavioral therapy. However, many people look outside of these offerings, hoping to find a treatment method that incorporates a pharmacological (or medication) based approach.

It is very common for opioid addicts to be provided with medication-assisted treatment both because such medication exists and because of the severity of an opioid addiction. Well, alcohol use disorders also have medications approved for their treatment and a high level of severity.

People interested in pursuing medication as a treatment option should keep in mind that it must be prescribed, therefore it is necessary that the treatment staff include medical professionals with the ability to provide prescriptions.

There are two levels of treatment that can be eased with the use of medication: withdrawal and ongoing recovery. The following discussion should familiarize you with the medications used and their effects.

Medication Assisted Treatment for Alcohol

When Is Medication Used in Alcohol Withdrawal?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, deciding whether or not to implement medication to ease alcohol withdrawal depends upon splitting patients into three groups:

  • Clients whose history of withdrawal includes extreme symptoms, like delirium and/or seizures.
  • Clients who are already in the process of withdrawal and are showing moderate symptoms.
  • Clients who are not yet in withdrawal or who have not yet shown symptoms of withdrawal.

Patients in groups one and two would immediately be provided with medication and the third group would need further observation to determine whether or not they needed pharmacological intervention.

What Medications Are Used for Alcohol Withdrawal?

Although many medications may be used to treat specific symptoms of withdrawal (like headaches and nausea), the two most common categories of medication are:

  1. Anti-Anxiety Medications
  2. Seizure Medications

Anti-anxiety medications are generally benzodiazepines and they are used to treat symptoms like delirium tremens (DTs). Medications of this class that are commonly used in alcohol withdrawal include:

Barbiturates may be used, although they have dangers associated with their use in alcohol treatment and must, therefore, be used under careful supervision. Other types of medications used during withdrawal include:

  • Anticonvulsants, like Carbamazepine, Tiagabine, Oxcarbazepine, Gabapentin
  • Antipsychotics, like Haloperidol
  • Beta Blockers and Alpha Adrenergic Agonists, like Clonidine
  • Relapse Prevention Agents, like Naltrexone, Camprosate
How Medication Help Alhoholism Treatment

Which Medication Are Used for Recovery?

The four most popular medications used to help people stay sober during recovery are:

  1. Naltrexone, brand name Vivitrol or ReVia
  2. Disulfiram, brand name Antabuse
  3. Acamprosate, brand name Campral
  4. Topiramate, brand name Topamax

Naltrexone is part of a class of drugs called opiate antagonists, which means that it works in the brain to prevent it from experiencing the pleasurable effects of drinking (or opioid use). It is used to treat alcohol use disorders because it helps people to drink less or to stop entirely. It does this by decreasing cravings for alcohol.

Disulfiram is used in cases of chronic alcoholism. When the medication is taken as directed, it causes unpleasant effects when alcohol is used, even small amounts. The effects include:

  • Headache
  • Chest Pain
  • Flushing
  • Choking
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Chest Pain
  • Flushing
  • Choking
  • Nausea and Vomiting

These effects start ten minutes after alcohol is in the body and can last over an hour.

Despite being FDA approved to treat post withdrawal maintenance of alcohol abstinence, researchers remain somewhat uncertain of Acamprosate’s mechanism of action. They do know that it reduces cravings. It is thought that the medication helps to normalize the changes that alcohol makes on the brain and that reduces symptoms of withdrawal.

Topiramate affects the neural pathways that modulate the activity of a dopamine system that changes drinking behavior. This system is closely linked with rewarding behavior. Topiramate has not yet received FDA approval, but research shows positive outcomes in the reduction of both drinking and cravings.

Who Can Prescribe Medication for the Treatment of Alcoholism?

When a person is ready to try pharmacological methods of treatment, they need to seek help from a person who is licensed to administer prescriptions by the government. This includes:

  • Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioners
  • Osteopathic Physician Assistants
  • Certified Physician Assistants
  • Physicians
  • Naturopaths
  • Psychiatrists