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A Pill to Stop Drinking – How Do Anti-Alcohol Drugs Work

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

We are privileged to be able to help people in need of treatment for alcohol abuse and alcoholism. As an independent referral and advice organisation, we have the opportunity to assist alcoholics and their families. In that regard, it is not unusual for people to contact us and ask if there is any kind of pill to stop drinking they can take. The answer is both 'yes' 'no'.

There are a number of prescription medications doctors will utilise to help those who are trying to overcome a drinking problem. But none of the medications is, in and of itself, a cure for alcoholism. The only real cure for any drinking problem is total abstinence. As far as prescription medications are concerned, they are merely an aid to make abstinence easier. They are most effective when the person taking them also receives counselling and psychotherapy.

We call alcoholism and other forms of addiction illnesses because there are certain physiological components that go along with them. In so doing, we give the false impression that alcoholism can be cured with medicine. Yet it cannot. No medicine can prevent an alcoholic from drinking if he or she wants to drink.

So what good are anti-alcohol drugs? Keep reading to learn more about how these drugs work and how they can benefit someone trying to overcome a drinking problem.

Two Kinds of Drugs

There are four different drugs recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to treat alcohol abuse and alcoholism. These are acamprosate, disulfiram, naltrexone, and nalmefene. Each of the four is used for one of the following two purposes:

  • Controlling Cravings – Acamprosate, naltrexone, and nalmefene are prescribed by doctors to help people control alcohol cravings. As you may already know, cravings are a big part of alcohol dependence. It is believed that controlling cravings can help people cut down on the amount of alcohol they consume and, in the event of successful rehab, prevent relapse as well.
  • Deterring Drinking – Disulfiram is quite a bit different from the other three. Rather than controlling cravings, this drug encourages the patient to stop drinking by making alcohol consumption very uncomfortable. The drug creates severe hangover symptoms within minutes of taking a drink, as a means of deterring further drinking.

The benefits of all four drugs should be obvious in terms of helping to reduce the amount of alcohol a person drinks. But again, none of the four is a magic pill to stop drinking that will work all by itself. Doctors, nurses and therapists employ additional strategies and therapies to create a more comprehensive programme that gives the person trying to overcome an alcohol problem the greatest chances of success.

Cravings and Alcohol Abuse Problems

You might be wondering why three of the four anti-alcohol medications are targeted at controlling cravings. The answer can be found in understanding the mechanism of alcohol addiction. Believe it or not, addiction is more than just a physical problem. It is also a mental and emotional one. Cravings are a big part of addiction in that they are felt physically but reinforced mentally and emotionally. Therefore, getting them under control is a big part of alcohol recovery.

A good way to think about it is to compare one person's desire to stop drinking with another person's desire to stop overeating. Both people experience physical cravings. The alcoholic physically craves alcohol while the overeater physically craves certain kinds of food. Both also experience psychological and emotional cravings as well. In other words, they are so accustomed to turning to drink or food as a means of emotional comfort that they simply cannot live without the things they crave.

Prescription medications aimed at helping alcohol abusers overcome their problems are designed primarily to control the physical cravings. With those cravings under control, counselling and psychotherapy can deal with the mental and emotional cravings.

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Medications the Temporary Aid

Anti-alcohol medicines are good as aids in a person's fight against alcohol. What must be understood is that they are temporary aids only. The purpose of these drugs is not to substitute one addiction for another, as is so often the case, but to give the struggling alcoholic a little bit of extra help in overcoming. The eventual goal is to make sure the person in recovery is using neither alcohol nor prescription medications.

This idea of medications being temporary is one that cannot be stressed enough. If you are looking for a pill to stop drinking that you expect to take for the rest of your life, you are looking at recovery from alcohol the wrong way. You need to rethink your perspective. Think of it this way: if you need to take a prescription medication to prevent drinking for the rest of your life, are you not dependent on that medication? And if so, how is life any different? You have simply substituted dependence on alcohol for dependence on prescription medication.

Alcoholism recovery specialists are more than happy to use prescription medications to help their patients recover from alcohol problems. But these medications are not intended to be taken permanently. Eventually, the former alcoholic should be completely substance-free in every regard.

Accessing Prescription Medications from Alcohol

Now that you know how anti-alcohol prescription medications work, you need to know how to access them. There is only one way to do so legally: make an appointment to see your GP or enrol in an alcohol recovery programme at a hospital or clinic. In either case, you will receive a comprehensive examination from a medical professional who is qualified to determine whether or not prescription medications are right in your case.

Be advised that your doctor may determine the best course of treatment is a prescription medication and a combination of individual counselling and support group participation. Your doctor may also decide that your drinking problem is severe enough to require a 3- to 12-week residential recovery programme. Overcoming your alcohol problem depends on whether or not you are willing to follow your doctor's recommendations for treatment.

There is no magic pill to stop drinking permanently. But there are effective prescription medications that can help you through the recovery process. To find out more, feel free to contact us on our 24-hour helpline. Our professional counsellors can answer any questions you might have about anti-alcohol medications or alcohol recovery treatment in general.

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