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Tablets to Stop Drinking – The Easy Way Out Or Is It?

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

Addressing the drinking epidemic in the UK has led to all sorts of research and development in an attempt to find the best way to help people stop drinking. Most of our success has been the result of combining traditional detox with modern rehabilitative therapy. Yet medications do have a place in alcohol recovery. Pharmaceutical manufacturers have come up with a number of tablets to stop drinking. But make no mistake; such medicines are not an easy way out of a drinking problem.

Before we get into the advantages and disadvantages of taking tablets to stop drinking alcohol, we should first discuss the medications themselves. There are four primary medications recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). These are:

  1. Acamprosate – This drug is one of the most popular medications used in alcohol rehab. It is prescribed in recovery to help control alcohol cravings. The major downside of this drug is that if you drink while taking it, it will no longer be effective in controlling cravings.
  2. Disulfiram – Known commercially as Antabuse, Disulfiram can be used by problem drinkers to quit or to help former alcoholics prevent relapse. Drinking while on this drug will create unpleasant symptoms similar to a severe hangover within minutes of taking a drink. Users taking disulfiram should avoid other alcohol-containing products, including mouthwash and aftershave.
  3. Naltrexone – This drug is often prescribed by doctors trying to help problem drinkers cut down. It works by blocking opioid receptors in the body, thereby significantly decreasing the pleasurable feelings drinking induces. Naltrexone is usually prescribed in conjunction with counselling and other medications.
  4. Nalmefene – This drug is similar to naltrexone in that it reduces alcohol cravings by blocking opioid receptors. It is a good medication for problem drinkers who do not necessarily need to maintain permanent abstinence. It doesn't work well for alcoholics who experience significant withdrawal symptoms during recovery.

In order to legally get a hold of any of these medications, you would first have to visit an NHS GP or private physician. These are not drugs you can purchase over-the-counter at your local pharmacy. They are prescription drugs that must be used according to a doctor's instructions if they are to be effective.

Advantages of Alcohol Reduction Medications

All medications have their appropriate applications. In the case of treating an alcohol problem, medications can be advantageous during withdrawal and throughout the course of treatment. In fact, some people are prescribed medication after treatment is completed in order to prevent relapse. In this regard, alcohol reduction medications do have advantages.

Let's take disulfiram as an example. As we described earlier, this drug causes very unpleasant symptoms if a user drinks while taking it. Furthermore, the symptoms are almost instantaneous. They are unpleasant enough that the drug serves as a motivator to stay away from alcohol if you are trying to beat an alcohol problem.

Any of the other three drugs can be very effective in reducing alcohol cravings. This is another obvious benefit. And given the fact that alcohol cravings do tend to increase during periods of withdrawal, taking medication may mean the difference between success and failure in treatment. This is especially true in detox.

The worst symptoms of detox usually occur within the first 48 hours. Where cravings are concerned, they can be most intense within that initial 24- to 48-hour period. Yet even in the days and weeks that follow they can linger. A prescription such as naltrexone or nalmefene can help take the edge off during detox and reduce any lingering cravings in the aftermath. Withdrawal will still not be a walk in the park, but it should be easier to bear.

Disadvantages of Alcohol Reduction Medications

For every existing advantage linked to alcohol reduction medications, there is a disadvantage. For starters, far too many problem drinkers falsely assume that taking tablets to stop drinking is an easy solution that will bring a clean and fast end to alcohol misuse. It will not. Alcohol misuse and abuse is a problem that goes well beyond physical symptoms that can be controlled with a prescription medication. It is a problem that goes right to the core of who a person is.

Secondly, there are critics of alcohol reduction medications who assert that using such medications only prolongs an alcohol problem. In some cases, the critics are correct. For example, consider a problem drinker who convinces his doctor to write a prescription for nalmefene. The drug will reduce cravings and help make withdrawal less unpleasant, but it also tends to extend the length of time withdrawal takes. In some situations, complete withdrawal is never achieved as the client becomes as addicted to the medication as he is the alcohol.

Third, taking any of the four prescription medications comes with the understanding that the individual is seriously and genuinely trying to reduce alcohol consumption. Continued and persistent drinking while taking any of the drugs would eventually result in them no longer working. And once that is the case, the patient is well on his or her way to a much more serious problem.

No Magic Tablets to Stop Drinking

Prescription medications do have their rightful place in treating problem drinking. But understand this: there are no magic tablets to stop drinking. The only thing that can prevent you from drinking is a wilful decision you make and stick to. If medications can help, that's good. But no medication by itself can prevent you from drinking.

Experts recommend that any use of alcohol reduction medications be confined to treatment programmes that include other forms of professional therapy. That therapy can be obtained through either an outpatient or inpatient clinic, or by utilising the services of a professional counsellor or certified alcohol charity. Additional treatments include:

  • Detox – A 7- to 10-day process in which the body slowly cleanses itself of alcohol through abstinence.
  • CBT – A counselling therapy that seeks to get at the root of the mental and emotional aspects of addiction.
  • Group Support – A means of providing support to recovering alcohol abusers through group counselling, mutual accountability, and shared experiences.
  • Skills Counselling – Equipping recovering overall abusers with the practical skills they need to avoid relapse in the future.
  • Healthy Lifestyle Counselling – Equipping recovering overall abusers to avoid relapse by adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes good nutrition and regular exercise

We have listed only five treatment options you might encounter in outpatient or inpatient programme. There are literally dozens of additional treatments therapists can use as they see fit. That is what is so attractive about modern alcohol treatment. No longer do treatment centres and therapists rely on a single treatment approach for every client. Rather, they create bespoke treatments that directly address client needs.

Treatment and Support Equal Success

If quitting drinking were as simple as taking a small pill, more people would be doing it. The fact is that it's not so simple. Overcoming a drinking problem is a combination of proper medical treatment and professional and personal support. Your drinking problem is no different. You are not going to overcome just by taking a pill once a day.

We urge you to contact our 24-hour helpline to learn more about how you can quit drinking. We offer comprehensive assessments, sound advice, and referrals to treatment providers including residential clinics, local charities, private counsellors, and the NHS. Our services are also free and completely confidential. You have nothing to lose by contacting us. Nothing that is, except your drinking problem.

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