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Treating Alcohol Addiction With Disulfiram

An alcohol use disorder (AUD) occurs when someone has become physically dependent on alcohol. If they’re using alcohol frequently, or they’re having trouble stopping drinking when they feel the desire to, they may have developed a dependence. Disulfiram can be used to help discourage those with an AUD from drinking.

Symptoms of a dependence or addiction include:

  • Being unable to quit drinking despite problems it’s causing in one’s life, such as issues with health, relationships, or employment.
  • Requiring more alcohol to reach the same level of intoxication.
  • Withdrawal symptoms that appear whenever alcohol consumption stops.
  • Spending most of one’s time finding, using, or recovering from the use of alcohol.
  • Giving up activities that were once enjoyable in order to spend more time drinking.
  • Having a desire to quit drinking, but being unable to do it.
  • Not being able to predict the individual’s behavior once they begin drinking.

When someone experiences these symptoms (and more), it can feel impossible to stop drinking. Medically assisted treatment is often required for those with severe addictions who may develop withdrawal symptoms when they discontinue drinking. There are many different options when it comes to treatment.

Disulfiram is only one option of many, but it’s proven to be a successful in many patients in the past. For those struggling with alcohol addiction, Disulfiram may be the medication they need to stay sober.

How Does It Work?

Disulfiram is a medication that is used to make drinking seem less appealing to addicts. By blocking the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol when they drink, addicts will feel a wealth of undesirable side effects any time they drink with Disulfiram in their system. Those symptoms include:

  • Flushing of the face
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness
  • Blurred vision
  • Mental confusion
  • Sweating
  • Choking
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Anxiety

Disulfiram is used to dissuade people from drinking alcohol. However, it’s only effective when taken consistently over a certain period of time. The effects of Disulfiram will start about 10 minutes after alcohol enters the body and they can last an hour or longer depending on the amount of alcohol consumed.

How To Take Disulfiram

The directions for taking Disulfiram are very specific, as they won’t work unless taken correctly. It should be taken once a day around the same time. The first dose can be taken 12 hours after consuming alcohol. It stays in the body for a few weeks after discontinuing use. Disulfiram is not meant to cure alcoholism but is meant to be used in combination with other methods as a way to discourage drinking.

Disulfiram should only be taken by those who have a prescription and have spoken with a medical provider. As Disulfiram may interfere with some other medications, it’s important that users let all doctors know that they are taking the drug. It’s recommended that they wear a medical ID bracelet or carry medical identification with them that states they’re taking Disulfiram.

When taking Disulfiram, no alcohol should be consumed. Users should also avoid alcoholic foods or beverages, kombucha, and “non-alcoholic beer,” which can have an alcohol content of 0.5% and still be called “alcohol free.” Some products, including hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, perfumes, mouthwash, and aftershave should be avoided as well.

Side Effects Associated With Disulfiram

Disulfiram is known for being a relatively safe drug as long as it’s not interfering with anything alcoholic or some other medications. Those with certain heart conditions, heart damage, or severe liver damage should not take Disulfiram.

Common side effects associated with disulfiram include:

  • Skin rash
  • Acne
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Tiredness
  • Impotence
  • Metallic taste or garlic-like taste in the mouth

Severe side effects include:

  • Excessive tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Yellowness of the skin or eyes
  • Dark urine
  • Nerve pain or damage
  • Psychosis
  • Changes in liver function
  • Liver failure

Medical attention should be sought out if any of the severe symptoms occur while taking Disulfiram. During the use of Disulfiram, users should be in constant contact with their doctors, as it’s important to be under supervision while using this drug.

The prescribing doctor will do occasional blood tests to ensure that the liver is functioning, and that the medication isn’t causing any issues. This consistent testing is vital to ensuring the success of the use of Disulfiram.

Can Other Medication Be Taken Alongside Disulfiram?

Any medications that have alcohol in them should not be taken with disulfiram. That includes cough or cold syrups and drops, elixirs, muscle rubs, and tonics. Other medications, such as dronabinol, phenytoin, metronidazole, ritonavir, lopinavir, or antibiotic isoniazid can cause increased risk of side effects. It’s important to speak to a doctor before starting Disulfiram to ensure that there are no potential drug interactions that could be dangerous. It is also important to let a pharmacist know what medication one uses.

As Disulfiram isn’t intended to cure alcoholism, it won’t help to reduce any side effects of alcohol withdrawal. Doctors will sometimes prescribe Benzodiazepines in order to reduce the symptoms of withdrawals in their patients. Taking these 2 medications together is safe, but users should always consult a medical professional first before taking a new medication.

What Is Medically Assisted Treatment?

Medically assisted treatment (MAT) is the use of medication in combination with other types of treatment, such as behavioral therapy or counseling. Medically assisted treatment is often offered at inpatient treatment facilities, especially for alcohol detox or detox from other drugs with severe withdrawal symptoms.

MAT ensures that patients can safely detox from alcohol or drugs without having to worry about severe side effects like seizures or delirium tremens. By detoxing under medical supervision, those in treatment can feel safe and secure throughout the recovery process. These facilities often use Benzodiazepines, Acamprosate, Naltrexone, and/or Disulfiram to treat an AUD.

For more information on treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.

  • Author: Megan Prevost | Last Updated: June 30, 2022

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    Megan Prevost

    Megan Prevost earned a B.F.A. in Creative Writing for Entertainment from Full Sail University. Her work has appeared in many different publications, and she’s held columns and guest spots on LGBTQ+ and entertainment websites. Previously, she’s written copy and content for both law firms and healthcare clinics. She is proud to be able to use her writing ability to help the addiction and mental health communities.

  • Medical Reviewer: Deborah Montross Nagel

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