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Antabuse for Treating Alcoholism

Antabuse for Treating Alcoholism

When you’re trying to begin a new life in sobriety, you need more than one coping strategy to help you overcome alcoholism.

Along with talk therapy, a self-help group, nutritional counseling and moral support from friends and family, you may benefit from pharmaceutical therapy to help you stay on track. Available to alcoholics since the 1940s, Antabuse, or disulfiram, is one of the oldest medications accessible for the treatment of this powerful addiction. While this medication isn’t right for everyone, Antabuse has helped many alcoholics stay sober.

Disulfiram Basics

Disulfiram, which goes by the trade name Antabuse, is a prescription medication that is taken orally once a day. The drug is prescribed to encourage abstinence and prevent relapse in chronic alcoholics, or those who have tried and failed repeatedly to stop drinking. The medication works by preventing your body from breaking down acetaldehyde, a compound in alcohol that creates severely unpleasant side effects when it builds up in your system at high levels. Antabuse treatment is a form of aversion therapy, based on the idea that if the alcoholic expects unpleasant physical reactions from drinking, he or she will be discouraged from consuming alcohol.

There is no pharmaceutical product that can “cure” the disease of alcoholism, but taking Antabuse can give you a strong incentive to stay sober.

If you know that you’ll experience side effects like throbbing headaches, severe vomiting, chest pain, breathing problems and anxiety within a matter of minutes after drinking alcohol, you may be less likely to pick up a drink in the first place. But in reality, many alcoholics do drink while they’re taking Antabuse, regardless of the severe side effects. According to the Journal of Substance Abuse, as many as 80 percent of alcoholics who take Antabuse are noncompliant, but reinforcing Antabuse treatment with psychosocial therapy can substantially improve success rates.

Factors That Increase Relapse Rates

Relapse prevention is the goal of Antabuse therapy, and it’s also the primary focus of alcoholism treatment in general. There are a number of important factors that can affect your chances of relapsing when you’re trying to get sober, notes the journal Addiction:

  • Whether or not you actively seek help for alcoholism
  • The length of time that you’ve been drinking heavily
  • Your level of education and employment status
  • Whether you perceive your drinking as a problem

Alcoholics who recognize that they have a problem and who actively seek treatment — either through a self-help group, a rehab program or pharmacotherapy — are more likely to get sober and remain abstinent.

Benefits of Antabuse

Antabuse is a controversial treatment option for chronic alcoholism. Some addiction specialists believe that aversion therapy isn’t an effective way to prevent alcoholics from drinking. But if you’ve tried and failed to get sober without medication therapy, taking Antabuse may give you the extra motivation you need to stay away from alcohol. If you’re thinking about taking Antabuse, consider the following potential benefits:

  • Antabuse gives you a powerful reason not to drink. When you take Antabuse as prescribed by your doctor, it only takes about 10 minutes for the effects of the medication to kick in, according to PubMed Health. After your last dose of Antabuse, you may have adverse reactions to alcohol for up to two weeks, sometimes longer. If you’re in a high-risk situation and you feel vulnerable to a relapse, the expectation of nausea, vomiting, headaches and flushing may be the deciding factor that keeps you from drinking.
  • Antabuse is easy to take. The instructions for taking Antabuse aren’t complicated. As long as you take an oral tablet once a day, you can expect the drug to be effective. The medication can be crushed and blended with a non-alcoholic beverage if you have swallowing difficulties.
  • Antabuse therapy reinforces your commitment to sobriety. Getting sober is a big step for a long-term, chronic alcoholic. Taking Antabuse every day can serve as a reminder of your dedication to leading a healthier life.
  • Antabuse may help convince others that you’re serious about getting sober. If your spouse, children or boss have doubts about whether you’re really going to stop drinking, Antabuse therapy may reassure them that you have a strong intention to overcome your disease.
  • Antabuse therapy can be started 12 hours after your last drink. If you want to get started on your medication treatment plan right away, Antabuse gives you this option. With other addiction drugs, you may have to wait for up to a week before starting medication.

In order to be effective, Antabuse treatment must be medically supervised. Taking the drug without a doctor’s prescription or modifying the dose could result in a relapse or a fatal drug reaction. When you take disulfiram, your doctor will recommend that you wear a medical alert bracelet or carry a special ID card to inform others that you’re taking Antabuse in the event of an emergency.

Alcohol Use and Abuse in the United States

As a legal, readily available drug, alcohol is one of the most widely used — and widely abused — chemical substances in the US. According to the National Center for Health Statistics:

  • Approximately 65 percent of adults in the US were actively drinking between 2005 and 2007.
  • Approximately 14 percent had drunk in the past but were no longer drinking.
  • Approximately 26 percent had been abstinent throughout their lives.
  • Approximately 5 percent were heavy drinkers

Risks of Antabuse

There are a lot of risks involved with taking Antabuse. The drug can be life-threatening if it isn’t taken correctly, or if you drink a lot of alcohol while you’re on the medication. Before you start Antabuse therapy, your doctor will thoroughly review its health risks with you. A few of the risks of Antabuse therapy include:

  • Life-threatening reactions to Antabuse with alcohol. The most dangerous side effects of drinking while on Antabuse include heart failure or heart attack, convulsions, severe respiratory difficulties, coma or death. Before you start taking this drug, a doctor must evaluate you for health conditions that could be worsened by Antabuse.
  • Serious complications and interactions. Aside from the reactions that you may experience if you drink while you’re on Antabuse, you may have serious side effects even if you don’t drink. These complications may include liver damage, cardiovascular problems, skin rashes, acne, headaches, fatigue and impotence. Give your doctor a complete list of any prescription medications, over-the-counter medications or supplements you’re taking to prevent drug interactions.
  • Noncompliance with treatment. Alcoholism is an addictive disorder characterized by intense cravings and denial about the severity of the illness. Many alcoholics don’t comply with Antabuse therapy because they can’t resist the craving for alcohol or because they’re able to persuade themselves that they can drink safely. If you don’t take the medication so that you can drink, you may have a relapse.
  • Reactions to products that contain alcohol. Even if you aren’t drinking alcoholic beverages, you may have an unpleasant reaction if you’re exposed to cosmetics, medicines, condiments or household cleaning products that contain alcohol.

Weighing the benefits and risks of Antabuse is an important step when you’re considering your treatment options. For some alcoholics, the health risks of Antabuse outweigh the potential gains. Talk with a medical professional or addiction specialist about your alternatives before you make a commitment to taking Antabuse.

Building a Complete Treatment Program

Antabuse alone won’t be enough to keep you sober or to help you recover from the devastating effects of alcoholism. Chronic alcohol use can take a big toll on your physical and mental health. You may need nutritional counseling and supplementation, psychotherapy, family counseling and group therapy to overcome your addiction.

Recovery may seem time-consuming and demanding, but the rewards are well worth the effort.