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Disulfiram Makes Drinking Alcohol Extremely Unpleasant; May Help Curb Cravings

Posted in Alcoholism Treatment

For people with the motivation to break the cycle of addiction to alcohol, help may come in the form of a pill. Disulfiram changes the way the body reacts to and digests alcohol, making drinking an undesirable experience marked by vomiting, headaches and bouts of nausea. Though not a cure-all, disulfiram can be helpful for recovering alcohol addicts when combined with other therapies, like counseling.

Also known as Antabuse and Antabus, disulfiram also causes symptoms like vision problems, perspiration, dizziness and muscle weakness when taken with alcohol. The drug can stay in the system for up to two weeks and can be taken once daily until a person no longer craves alcohol.

The drug works by creating alcohol sensitivity. When an alcoholic drink is metabolized while disulfiram is in the system, the blood concentration or build-up of acetaldehyde, an organic chemical compound linked to hangovers, can be up to ten times greater than when a person drinks alcohol by itself.

Sometimes called “forced sobriety,” the use of disulfiram and other similar drugs is most effective when combined with group or individual therapies to help the person understand their addiction and find solutions to life stressors that trigger cravings.

Even very small levels of disulfiram can cause severe negative reactions when consumed with alcohol. Chest pain, difficulty breathing and vertigo can also occur. The effects set in quickly, in as little as 30 minutes, and disulfiram does not create a drug tolerance over time. Instead, the longer the timeframe disulfiram is taken, the higher the person’s sensitivity to alcohol consumption.

People who choose to work toward sobriety with disulfiram should let friends and family know ahead of time, so that they can encourage them to keep taking it and be aware of the side effects.

Even workplace chemicals or toiletries that contain alcohol, like mouthwash and after shave products, may have enough alcohol to produce adverse reactions when taken with disulfiram. A small number of recovering alcoholics have been reported to take the drug without effect, and can continue drinking with few negative results. Others have experienced a constant tiredness or dizziness when taking it, even without drinking alcohol.

Disulfiram is also being explored to help people recovering from cocaine addiction because it prohibits the body from metabolizing the neurotransmitter dopamine, and cumulative levels of dopamine can cause high anxiety, increased blood pressure and nervousness or instability.

Though drugs like disulfiram are only available by prescription, and patients who take them are monitored, the debate continues as to the effectiveness of treating substance addicts with an additional chemical. Some experts believe addicts are physiologically dependent and cannot break the cycle without medical intervention, while others suggest turning to drugs like disulfiram when all other methods have failed.

On the other side of the argument, some addiction experts warn that treating addictive personalities with new substances masks or perpetuates the underlying problems associated with addictive behaviors.

New prescriptions for helping treat substance addictions are rapidly entering the pharmaceutical market, so it is likely that drugs like disulfiram – and associated debates – will also remain on the scene of addiction recovery.