Medications for the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder

Certain medications can be used during alcohol use disorder treatment to alleviate withdrawal symptoms.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a serious chronic illness characterized by the inability to control alcohol consumption due to emotional and physical dependence. Drinking alcohol is a social norm in many parts of the world, so some may not see the potential dangers of drinking. However, the severity of alcohol use is extreme, affecting over 283 million people worldwide and accounting for one in every twenty deaths.1

Mental and physical dependence on alcohol can cause various signs and side effects, including the inability to control the amount of alcohol consumed, feeling anxious, irritable, or stressed when not consuming alcohol, and strong urgency or need to drink. In addition, the seriousness of alcohol abuse is clear, as it can cause heart failure, depression, liver disease, damage to parts of the brain, and even death.

Other Names for Alcohol Use Disorder

Other common names for alcohol use disorder include alcohol addiction, alcoholism, alcohol dependency, and ETOH abuse. ETOH is an abbreviation for ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, the technical name for the active ingredient in alcohol that causes intoxication.

alcohol use disorder treatment


Which Medicines Can Treat Alcohol Use Disorder?

Recovering from alcohol addiction can be extremely difficult. Fortunately, there are medications that can help people during treatment, control the challenging side effects of withdrawal, and achieve sobriety. These medications include:

Disulfiram

Also known as Antabuse, disulfiram works by increasing the body’s sensitivity to the effects of alcohol. This typically makes people feel sick when they drink, thereby helping them avoid drinking. 

Naltrexone

Naltrexone is approved by the FDA to treat alcohol addiction and opioid addiction. People who take naltrexone will no longer feel the pleasurable effects produced by alcohol. However, this medication works best in conjunction with other medications and therapy because it does not decrease cravings. 

Acamprosate

This medication helps people with ETOH abuse by reducing cravings and urges to use alcohol. It does not work for people currently drinking alcohol or using other drugs while taking the medication. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

It’s not easy for people to admit they have a problem, let alone take the steps toward getting better. In 2019, only 7.2% of people with AUD received treatment, so people who take the first steps to recovery and seek treatment should be very proud of themselves.2

Nonetheless, it’s important to note the possible side effects and withdrawal symptoms that may occur during the treatment process. This allows people to be better prepared for detox and alcohol addiction treatment.

Short-Term Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

The following short-term symptoms may arise within a few hours of the last drink but should only last for a few days:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Confusion

Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Long-term and severe ETOH abuse may cause more intense withdrawal symptoms. Severe withdrawal signs of alcoholism include:

  • Delirium tremens (DT)—rare episodes of delusions and hallucinations that usually happen two to three days after the last drink
  • High blood pressure
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Kidney disease
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Compromised immune system

Which Behavioral Therapies Can Treat Alcohol Use Disorder

In addition to medications, therapy can be useful for people dealing with alcohol dependence.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches people that their thoughts can influence their feelings and behaviors rather than outside stimuli like people and situations. By understanding how their thoughts influence behavior, people can learn to better control their behavior, avoid situations that may trigger relapse, and cope with other problems contributing to addiction.

Numerous studies have shown that CBT is an effective form of therapy to treat substance use disorder and is most effective when combined with other treatments. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy paired with participation in support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous usually leads to positive results.3

Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET)

Motivational enhancement therapy (MET) can be a good option for people who are resistant to therapy or feel some lingering desire to drink. It aims to help people quickly change their mindset, recognize that they present signs of alcohol dependency, and come to a place where wanting to get better is internally motivated.

Marital and Family Counseling

Marital or family counseling can be crucial in maintaining healthy relationships while recovering from alcohol use disorder. For instance, people may find that their drinking stemmed from family or marital problems, caused problems in their family or marriage, or both. No matter what the case may be, counseling can help the person with AUD, and their loved ones understand the issue, improve their relationship, and learn how to move through treatment together. In addition, marital and family counseling can teach the person’s support group how to help and offer support in the best ways possible.

Brief Interventions

This type of therapy is best suited for people who do not have an alcohol addiction but may be heading in that direction. Brief interventions are short, one-on-one sessions with a counselor or therapist who aim to help a person moderate the way they drink. For example, they may help someone quit binge drinking but not stop drinking altogether.  

Research has shown that brief interventions can decrease alcohol consumption by 34% and decrease mortality rates by around 26%.4

Alcohol Addiction Signs

Because drinking is normalized, it can be hard to know when someone is just casually drinking and when someone is exhibiting alcohol addiction signs. The following includes common signs of alcohol addiction:

Blacking Out

Blacking out occurs when a person experiences temporary memory loss from consuming a large amount of alcohol. This behavior is serious, very harmful, and unhealthy. Thus, it is a prominent sign of AUD.  

Drinking More Than Intended

Another one of the more common alcohol addiction signs is consistently drinking more than intended. For example, a person may tell themself at the beginning of the night that they will only have a few drinks, but they always end up drinking way more than intended. Similarly, someone who tries to cut back on alcohol use but can’t seem to stop is an indicator of alcohol addiction.

Choosing Alcohol Over Other Activities

A person may be showing alcohol addiction signs if they frequently choose to drink over participating in other activities or avoid certain situations if there is no alcohol involved.

Craving/Obsessing Over Alcohol

Lastly, having alcohol cravings and/or obsessing over alcohol may indicate alcohol use disorder. For example, a person would constantly think about when they will be able to drink, what alcoholic beverage they want to consume and wish they were under the influence of alcohol while sober.

What Are the Stages of Alcohol Use Disorder?

There are four stages of alcohol use disorder:

At-Risk Stage

This stage is hard to spot because people may not drink compulsively, binge drink, crave alcohol, or exhibit any other alcohol addiction symptoms. In other words, the warning signs of alcoholism are not present in this stage. Instead, they use alcohol as an unhealthy tool—whether it is to help them sleep, help them feel better in social situations, or unwind after a long day. If people don’t find an alternative tool to cope with their feelings, this stage can eventually develop into alcohol addiction.

Early Alcohol Use Disorder

People in this stage likely drink compulsively, but it may not be every day or even every week. However, they likely participate in binge drinking and can’t imagine a “good night” without getting intoxicated. In addition, they may exhibit alcoholism symptoms like thinking or obsessing about alcohol when they’re not using it.

Mid-Stage Alcohol Use Disorder

The signs of alcoholism are typically clear in this stage. While people may hide the alcohol addiction symptoms from others, the consequences of their drinking are beginning to affect school, work, and other responsibilities. Alcohol addiction symptoms like craving alcohol, needing to drink more to feel its effects, and physical health issues like shaking or sweating may be present.

End-Stage Alcohol Use Disorder

At this stage, all alcohol addiction symptoms are likely present. Alcohol has become the center of people’s lives, and their day revolves around when they will get their next drink. Some people can still function to some degree at this stage, but many people face job loss, financial issues, and relationship strain due to their drinking. In addition, health issues like alcoholic fatty liver and cirrhosis may occur, and alcohol overdose signs may be more prevalent.

Stages of Alcohol Use Disorder


Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder

No matter which stage of alcohol use disorder a person may be in, help is available. It’s never too late or too soon to get help for alcohol use disorder. At San Diego Detox, we offer effective treatment methods for alcohol use disorder and help clients safely and healthily recover.  

Detox

It’s important to first expel the alcohol from the body through detox. Reducing alcohol addiction symptoms and withdrawal symptoms with detox can be a helpful step in beginning recovery. Medically-assisted alcohol detoxification at San Diego Detox can ensure a safe and comfortable transition from alcoholism to sobriety. After that, medications and therapies can help further recover.

Therapy

Next, it’s vital to treat any underlying problems that may be contributing to AUD. Problems such as trauma, mental illness, and stress could be a factor in why someone develops an alcohol addiction. Thus, seeking treatment in the form of therapy or counseling helps address these underlying issues.

 
In addition, therapy plays a crucial role in learning how to cope with alcohol dependency symptoms and maintain a sober lifestyle in a healthy manner. A support group like
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can also be an effective treatment for people with alcohol use disorder.