There are various medications for alcoholism that doctors may prescribe to help people manage their condition. The medical term for this condition is alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Evidence-based treatment for AUD typically combines behavioral therapy and medications to treat those with substance use disorders.

Some medications help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, while others may improve mood and cognitive function. A doctor works with a person to determine which medications are right for them based on their individual needs.

This article explores medications for AUD in further detail, including how they can help someone with AUD and a list of medications. It also discusses the benefits and risks of these medications, other treatments, when to speak with a doctor about drinking, and resources for people with AUD.

AUD is a chronic and often relapsing disease that may involve compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over drinking, and a negative emotional state when a person is not drinking.

Someone with AUD drinks regularly and in large amounts. Over time they may develop a physical dependency. If they try to quit or cut back, they may experience withdrawal symptoms such as:

AUD is a complex condition, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Medications can play an important role in helping people manage AUD by changing how they react to alcohol or by managing its long-term effects. Medications may:

  • reduce cravings
  • help with withdrawal symptoms
  • help to rebalance certain chemicals in a person’s brain

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three medications for AUD.

However, these medications are not a cure for AUD. They are most effective in people who participate in a treatment plan that combines medication and behavioral therapy.

Acamprosate

Doctors may recommend acamprosate for people in recovery who are no longer drinking. It helps rebalance certain chemicals in the brain and may help a person manage certain withdrawal symptoms.

A person typically begins using acamprosate on the fifth day after they stop drinking, with the medication reaching full effectiveness in 5-8 days. A person takes this medication three times a day or as a doctor advises.

Naltrexone

A person taking naltrexone does not experience the pleasurable effects of alcohol. It is an opioid antagonist, meaning that it blocks the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals, which it releases when a person drinks.

Naltrexone is not as effective in people who are drinking at treatment initiation.

A person may take naltrexone daily in pill form or monthly as an injection.

Disulfiram

This medication helps to discourage drinking by causing negative side effects when a person consumes alcohol. These may include:

A person may begin taking disulfiram 12 hours after their last drink and should not drink alcohol while taking the medication. A healthcare professional may prescribe disulfiram to people who cannot take acamprosate or naltrexone.

Many people have difficulty quitting alcohol use, and medications may make it easier for some people to stick to their treatment plans.

Because medications limit the effects of alcohol on the body, they may help individuals function better and stay focused on their recovery. As a result, people gain control over their condition and can manage their symptoms effectively.

Although overcoming AUD is a challenging process, medications can help people stay in recovery and prevent them from returning to drinking.

In combination with other treatment methods, such as therapy and support groups, medications can be an important part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Medications for AUD can be helpful. However, they are not without risks. Some medications may cause side effects, and certain people should not take them. Medications may also interact with each other.

All medications for AUD can cause side effects and may have contraindications.

Acamprosate

People with kidney problems should speak with a doctor before taking acamprosate. This medication can cause side effects that may include:

Disulfiram

People with severe heart disease or who are pregnant should not take disulfiram. A healthcare professional may decide if disulfiram is suitable for someone who has diabetes or is over 60 years old.

Side effects may include liver damage. So, doctors will monitor people carefully. Episodes of psychosis are another risk in some individuals.

Naltrexone

Anyone with kidney or liver issues should not take naltrexone without guidance from a healthcare professional. It can cause hepatitis and liver and kidney damage.

People must not take opioid medications for a minimum of 7 days before starting naltrexone and throughout the entire course of treatment. Common side effects of naltrexone may include nausea, headache, dizziness, and sleep problems.

Doctors may recommend medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies to provide a holistic treatment approach.

A person may work with a mental health professional to address the underlying causes of their AUD and develop healthy coping mechanisms. They may also benefit from attending support groups where they can share their experiences with others in recovery.

Common therapies for AUD include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This treatment helps people identify and change the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to their AUD. CBT may involve identifying triggers, dealing with cravings, and learning healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET): This therapy helps people increase their motivation to change their drinking behavior. MET may involve exploring a person’s reasons for change and providing support and encouragement.
  • 12-step programs: These programs follow 12-step models created by support groups. They may involve attending meetings and working with a sponsor.

People who are experiencing difficulties with alcohol use should seek professional help. If someone cannot control their drinking habits or experiences negative consequences as a result of drinking, they may have AUD.

A healthcare professional can create a treatment plan and refer a person to specialized care if necessary. There are many treatment options available, and a doctor can help determine the best course of action for each individual.

There is support available for people who are experiencing difficulties with alcohol use.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) helpline provides free, confidential, 24/7 support for people in distress. Counselors can provide information about treatment options and local support groups.

There are three medications that the FDA has approved to treat AUD. They may be able to help someone achieve sobriety and maintain recovery. They may help to reduce cravings and the risk of relapse.

Besides medications, doctors may recommend counseling and behavioral therapies. There are also support groups available to people experiencing AUD.

However, medications for AUD may cause side effects or interact with other medications. Therefore, a person should speak with a healthcare professional for further guidance.