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Medications Used For Alcohol Withdrawal & Dependence

Published on June 25, 2021
MAT | Medications Used For Alcohol Withdrawal & Dependence

A number of medications have been developed and approved to help those with alcohol dependence or addiction stop drinking, manage their withdrawal symptoms, and maintain their new lifestyle.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) 

There is no alcohol pill that on its own can cure alcohol withdrawal symptoms or alcohol use disorder

Instead, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) uses pharmacotherapy in combination with proven substance use disorder treatments like counseling, behavioral therapies, mental health treatment, and peer support programs.

In the case of alcohol use disorder, there are a number of FDA-approved medications available to discourage drinking, improve brain function, reduce the rewarding effects of drinking, and treat the various mild or severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. 

Acamprosate (Campral)

Long-term alcohol abuse damages neurotransmitter balance in the human brain, especially in regards to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate. This imbalance contributes to alcohol withdrawal syndrome and can impact one’s mindset, mood, and sleep.

Acamprosate, taken after acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms have faded, helps correct this imbalance so individuals feel more in control and more like themselves during recovery.

Acamprosate can be used long-term, but should be used cautiously when an individual has kidney damage. It may cause side effects including cramps, diarrhea, flatulence, headaches, insomnia, and impotence. 

Naltrexone (Vivitrol, Revia)

Naltrexone works as an opioid antagonist, blocking opioid receptors in the brain to prevent feelings of euphoria. These receptors are part of the brain’s reward circuit, which reinforces pleasurable habits.

Naltrexone takes some of the desire or urgency out of the act of drinking, which can help participants prevent relapse and keep relapses minor if they do happen.

Naltrexone doesn’t react with alcohol but should not be taken with opioid drugs. It’s available in pills or as an injection, and can be taken long-term.

Naltrexone should be used with caution by those with liver disease, and may cause liver damage in large doses.

Disulfiram (Antabuse)

Unlike other medications, disulfiram has no effect on those who take it until an individual chooses to begin drinking once again.

By inhibiting the body’s production of the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase, disulfiram makes those who take it intolerant to alcohol.

If any alcohol consumption occurs while on disulfiram, the person will likely experience anxiety, headache, flushing, sweating, nausea, and vomiting in as little as ten minutes.

This non-life-threatening but uncomfortable reaction can help discourage drinking or cause those who take it to develop a lasting aversion to alcohol.

Disulfiram is long-acting, non-addictive, and can be taken at any point as long as an individual has abstained from alcohol for at least 24 hours. 

Benzodiazepines

Primarily used as a treatment for anxiety disorders, benzodiazepines may also be prescribed to help manage serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms, including seizures.

Common benzodiazepines used for alcohol withdrawal include:

Unfortunately, benzodiazepines are habit forming and should only be used as a short-term treatment option. 

They are also central nervous system depressants, like alcohol, and will reduce heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure when used. This can increase the risk of overdose and death if an individual relapses while the medication is still active in their body.

Common side effects of benzodiazepines include disorientation, dizziness, weakness, and sedation. Dosage varies depending on the specific benzodiazepine prescribed.

Other Medications For Alcohol Withdrawal

A variety of other medications may be prescribed for the treatment of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, including:

  • barbiturates: powerful anti-anxiety medications used to treat alcohol withdrawal seizures, especially in emergency settings
  • anticonvulsants (gabapentin, carbamazepine): sometimes used to manage mild symptoms
  • antipsychotics: used to treat co-occurring disorders such as schizophrenia
  • hypertension medications (clonidine): used to reduce symptoms of physical or mental overactivity
  • beta blockers: used to reduce symptoms of physical or mental overactivity
  • muscle relaxants (baclofen): used to treat muscle spasms and cramps

Alcohol Detox & Recovery Services

If you struggle with problematic drinking, it’s important that you carefully consider participating in a professional inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment program, which may include detoxification support

This way, you can face the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal with the help of professional clinicians and healthcare professionals before transitioning into therapeutic programs designed to give you the tools you need to maintain your sobriety long-term.

To learn more, please contact Ark Behavioral Health today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Biomed Research International - Use of Pharmacotherapies in the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorders and Opioid Dependence in Primary Care
Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research - Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - MAT Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions

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