Medications To Help Stop Drinking

Discover medications to help stop drinking, their mechanisms, and the role of psychotherapy for sobriety.

James Ekbatani
May 29, 2024

Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. It's a chronic relapsing brain disease that ranges from mild to severe and is often marked by withdrawal symptoms when not drinking and a high tolerance for alcohol. The successful treatment and management of AUD often involve the use of medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of both.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

When a person with alcohol dependence stops drinking, they may experience a variety of withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and may appear as soon as 8 hours after the last drink. According to, these symptoms can include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Jumpiness or shakiness
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares
  • Not thinking clearly

More severe symptoms may appear 2 to 4 days after abstinence and can include:

  • Agitation
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Severe confusion

In significantly severe cases of alcohol withdrawal, detoxification professionals may administer medications to help ease the symptoms. Foregoing medications may, in some cases, have adverse consequences for any future withdrawal episodes.

Severity Levels of Alcohol Dependence

The severity of alcohol dependence can vary widely among individuals. In some instances of pronounced alcohol dependence and severe accompanying withdrawal, a person may develop a neurological syndrome called delirium tremens (DTs) that is characterized by autonomic nervous system excitation and significant changes in mental status [1].

Understanding the severity of an individual's alcohol dependence is key in determining the right course of treatment. In many cases, medications to help stop drinking can be an effective part of a comprehensive treatment plan. In the following sections, we'll explore FDA-approved medications for alcohol abstinence and how they work.

FDA-Approved Medications for Alcohol Abstinence

For individuals striving to combat Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), there are several FDA-approved medications that can be beneficial. These medications, which include Disulfiram (Antabuse), Naltrexone, and Acamprosate (Campral), work in different ways to reduce cravings, discourage alcohol consumption, and manage withdrawal symptoms.

Disulfiram (Antabuse)

Disulfiram (Antabuse) is considered the first FDA-approved drug for AUD. This medication changes the way the body metabolizes alcohol, inducing unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and headaches if alcohol is consumed. This reaction discourages further drinking. However, it's worth noting that adherence to this medication can be challenging for many individuals [2].

Medication Action Administration
Disulfiram (Antabuse) Induces unpleasant symptoms when alcohol is consumed, discouraging further drinking Oral


Naltrexone works by reducing alcohol cravings and diminishing the pleasurable effects of alcohol. It does this by blocking the usual response to alcohol in the brain. This medication is beneficial for individuals who have abstained from drinking for at least four days prior to starting treatment. It has shown to lead to reduced heavy drinking days and overall alcohol consumption [2].

Medication Action Administration
Naltrexone Reduces cravings and diminishes the pleasurable effects of alcohol Oral or injectable

Acamprosate (Campral)

Acamprosate (Campral) aids in managing the persistent withdrawal symptoms that occur after alcohol cessation. It interacts with chemical messengers in the brain to restore balance and stability in individuals who have been heavy drinkers. However, this medication requires taking multiple pills throughout the day [2].

Medication Action Administration
Acamprosate (Campral) Manages withdrawal symptoms after alcohol cessation Oral (multiple pills per day)

These medications have all proven to be effective in reducing alcohol use and preventing relapse in individuals with AUD. It's important to remember that these medications are most effective when used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes counseling or therapy. As with any medication, it's essential to discuss potential side effects and contraindications with a healthcare provider.

Off-Label Medications for Alcohol Use Disorder

While the FDA has approved certain medications specifically for the treatment of alcohol use disorder, there are also medications that, while not specifically approved for this purpose, have shown to be effective in helping individuals reduce or stop drinking. These are known as off-label medications. Two such off-label medications that have been widely studied and utilized for their potential benefits in treating alcohol use disorder are Gabapentin and Topiramate.

Gabapentin and Topiramate

Gabapentin and Topiramate, while FDA-approved for seizures, are sometimes prescribed off-label for alcohol use disorder. These medications interact with the GABA and glutamate systems in the brain and have demonstrated promising results in assisting individuals to avoid or reduce drinking and diminish cravings.

Recent reports in medical literature suggest the feasibility of using Gabapentin and Topiramate in the treatment of alcohol dependence. These drugs have shown potential in reducing drinking, although they're not officially FDA approved for this specific use [5].

While these medications are promising, it's crucial to remember that they should only be used under medical supervision and as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for alcohol use disorder. Off-label medication usage should always be discussed with a healthcare provider to understand the potential benefits, risks, and considerations.

These medications, along with FDA-approved treatments, psychotherapy, and other interventions, can provide a multi-faceted approach to treating alcohol use disorder, offering a better chance of recovery and sustained sobriety. Further research is ongoing to explore other treatment options, including other potential off-label medications, to provide more effective solutions to help individuals overcome alcohol use disorder.

Exploring the Mechanisms of Medications

To understand how medications can aid in alcohol abstinence, it's essential to delve into their mechanisms of action. This section provides an insight into how Disulfiram, Naltrexone, and Acamprosate work in the body.

How Disulfiram Works

Disulfiram, the first FDA-approved drug for the treatment of alcohol dependence, functions by inhibiting the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase. This inhibition leads to an increased plasma acetaldehyde concentration, causing unpleasant sensations after alcohol consumption. If a person taking Disulfiram consumes alcohol, they would experience discomforting effects such as nausea and flushing, which deters further alcohol consumption. While some studies have shown Disulfiram's effectiveness in reducing alcohol consumption and supporting abstinence, the results remain inconsistent and heavily rely on patient cooperation. The Agency for Quality Research and Healthcare has found insufficient evidence to support the efficacy of Disulfiram.

How Naltrexone Works

Naltrexone, approved by the FDA for treating alcoholism since 1984, operates as a competitive opioid antagonist. It reduces alcohol consumption by suppressing the reward system and the pleasure experienced after alcohol consumption. By blocking opioid receptors in the brain, Naltrexone prevents the release of endorphins triggered by alcohol consumption, thereby reducing the euphoria and sense of relaxation that alcohol creates. Naltrexone has been found to be more effective than Acamprosate in reducing heavy drinking and alcohol cravings, especially if patients undergo detoxification and maintain a sufficiently long abstinence period before starting pharmacological treatment.

How Acamprosate Works

Acamprosate is a well-tolerated and relatively safe drug that has been available for the treatment of alcohol dependence syndrome since 1989. It modulates glutamatergic transmission by affecting N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) and metabotropic glutamate-5 receptors, which is the probable mechanism of action of Acamprosate. By restoring the balance in the central nervous system that alcohol disrupts, Acamprosate reduces alcohol cravings and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. It has been shown to improve abstinence rates and treatment completion rates.

These medications are part of a larger strategy for treating alcohol use disorder. While they can help reduce cravings and deter drinking, they are most effective when used in combination with counseling and other forms of therapy. It's important to remember that overcoming alcohol dependence is a process, and these medications are tools to help along that journey.

The Role of Psychotherapy in Alcohol Abstinence

Psychotherapy plays a crucial role in alcohol abstinence and is often the primary treatment for alcoholism. While medications can aid in managing withdrawal symptoms and cravings, they are most effective when combined with psychotherapy, which helps address the root causes of alcohol use disorder.

Combining Medication and Psychotherapy

Combining medications and psychotherapy can enhance treatment outcomes for those striving for alcohol abstinence. This combination therapy involves the use of one or more FDA-approved medications like disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate, along with psychotherapy. There's also potential for using off-label medications such as baclofen, topiramate, varenicline, and gabapentin in this context.

Studies have shown that this dual approach is effective in treating substance use disorders, as medication can help manage physical symptoms while psychotherapy addresses behavioral and emotional aspects of alcohol dependence [3].

Other Therapies in Alcohol Dependence Treatment

Beyond traditional psychotherapy, other therapies have shown promise in the treatment of alcohol dependence. For instance, recent clinical trials have explored the use of psychoactive substances such as psilocybin and MDMA as part of therapy. These substances, when used under medical supervision and as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, appear to offer new avenues for breakthroughs in alcohol abuse treatment.

In conclusion, the role of psychotherapy in alcohol abstinence cannot be overstated. Whether used alone or in combination with medications, it is a vital part of treatment plans designed to help individuals overcome alcohol use disorder and achieve sobriety. As research continues, new and potentially more effective therapies may emerge, offering further hope for those battling alcohol dependence.

Potential Side Effects and Contraindications

While medications to help stop drinking can be effective tools in the journey towards sobriety, it's important to be aware of their potential side effects and contraindications.

Common Side Effects

Like any medication, those designed to help stop drinking can cause side effects. Here are some common side effects associated with Disulfiram, Naltrexone, and Acamprosate:

Disulfiram can lead to an increase in plasma acetaldehyde concentration. This causes unpleasant sensations after alcohol consumption, such as tachycardia, shortness of breath, anxiety, and nausea.

Naltrexone, an FDA-approved treatment for alcoholism since 1984, suppresses the reward system and the pleasure experienced after alcohol consumption. Some patients may experience nausea, headaches, dizziness, or fatigue.

Acamprosate, available for the treatment of alcohol dependence syndrome since 1989, modulates glutamatergic transmission. It is a well-tolerated and relatively safe drug that can sometimes cause diarrhea, nausea, or itchiness [4].

Medication Common Side Effects
Disulfiram Tachycardia, shortness of breath, anxiety, nausea
Naltrexone Nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue
Acamprosate Diarrhea, nausea, itchiness

Who Should Not Use These Medications

Certain individuals should not use these medications. For instance, people with severe liver disease, those who are pregnant, or individuals with certain mental health disorders may be advised not to take these medications. Always consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new medication regimen.

Additionally, it's crucial to remember that while these medications can be effective, psychotherapy remains a cornerstone of treatment for alcoholism. In fact, the best results are often seen when medications are used in combination with psychotherapy and other forms of treatment. Always consult with a healthcare provider to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for your unique situation.