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Disulfiram, commonly sold under the brand name Antabuse, was the first medication approved to treat alcohol use disorders (AUDs) in the United States. For more than 60 years, this prescription has been used by treatment specialists and physicians to help people maintain sobriety. Roughly 200,000 Americans take disulfiram each year to help recover from an AUD.
Prescription drugs, such as disulfiram, are not meant to be the only method used in alcohol abuse treatment. Rather, these medications are intended to be used as part of a comprehensive recovery plan. These plans typically include:
- Inpatient rehab
- Outpatient rehab
- Individual, group and family counseling sessions
- Addiction-specific therapies
- Support group meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon
Sobriety is a lifelong journey that takes time and patience. If you or someone you love is suffering from alcoholism, it’s time to start on the path to a healthier and alcohol-free lifestyle. Millions of people worldwide check into rehab programs to overcome an AUD each and every year. Our treatment specialists will be by your side every step of the way – from helping you find the right facility to the admissions process and long-term care programs.
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Disulfiram in Treating Alcoholism
Disulfiram has proven to be very effective in treating AUDs. Once alcohol is removed entirely from the body, your treatment specialist may prescribe disulfiram. Because this medication can produce uncomfortable feelings when mixed with alcohol, it is only administered after withdrawal symptoms have subsided.
The prescription comes in a tablet form and is usually taken every morning. At first, your treatment specialist may prescribe a strong dose of disulfiram, which will help you better manage any urges to drink. This allows you to focus solely on your health and recovery. Doses of the medication are typically adjusted over time based on your treatment progress.
After completing rehab, your treatment specialist may recommend scheduling check-up appointments every few weeks. During these appointments, you can discuss your progress with your treatment specialist, who will help determine when to taper off treatment medications, such as disulfiram.
How Does Disulfiram Work?
Unlike other medications used during alcoholism treatment, disulfiram does not affect the brain’s receptors. Instead, it works by altering how your body breaks down and eliminates alcohol from your system.
The metabolization process starts by converting alcohol into acetaldehyde – the toxic substance that’s responsible for the unpleasant side effects associated with hangovers. However, rather than allowing the body to further break down acetaldehyde and reduce these effects, disulfiram blocks the oxidation process. This causes an increased level of acetaldehyde in the bloodstream.
High levels of acetaldehyde produce feelings similar to a hangover, which are intended to help people stop drinking. This sensation can be felt within 30 minutes of consuming alcohol while taking disulfiram.
If mixed with alcohol, disulfiram can cause:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Chest pain
- Trouble breathing
- Blurred vision
Due to the potentially serious effects produced by disulfiram, you should never take more than prescribed or stop use without the help of your treatment specialist.
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Disulfiram Side Effects
While there are many benefits to the use of disulfiram for treating alcoholism, this medication may cause adverse and unwanted side effects in some patients. Be sure to talk with your treatment specialist about your medical history, as well as any medications you are currently taking. In some cases, prescription and over-the-counter drugs can have a negative interaction when taken with disulfiram.
Minor side effects of disulfiram do not pose a medical threat and typically subside within a few days. These effects may include:
- Skin rash or acne
Though unusual, severe side effects of the medication require immediate medical assistance. Serious side effects of disulfiram may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes
- Dark urine
In some cases, the drug may cause a sedative effect. If this happens, ask your healthcare provider about taking the medicine later in the day or before bed.
Mixing Disulfiram with Foods or Products Containing Alcohol
While taking disulfiram, it is not recommended to consume foods or use certain products that contain alcohol. Even the smallest amounts of alcohol can cause a negative reaction when mixed with this prescription. To avoid any adverse effects, be sure to check all product labels carefully before consuming foods or using new products.
Products and foods containing alcohol that should be avoided include:
- Cough medicine
- Cooking wine or vinegar
- Perfume, cologne or aftershave
- Hair dye
Find Alcohol Recovery Programs Close to Home
Medications, like disulfiram, can be extremely beneficial for the alcohol recovery process. The first step to getting better and overcoming an AUD is to find a treatment program that fits your needs.
If you’re ready to quit drinking, there are countless alcoholism resources available to help. But it’s not just about finding any treatment program, it’s about finding the right one for you. No two rehab facilities are exactly alike; each one offers unique services and therapies tailored to specific addictions and patients.
Several factors to consider before deciding on a treatment center include:
- The types of therapies used by treatment specialists and whether they’re evidence-based
- Program duration and frequency of sessions (for outpatient settings)
- Options for aftercare programs to assist with maintaining long-term sobriety
- Accepted forms of payment, such as insurance, sliding scale and financial aid
- How family members and other loved ones are incorporated into the recovery process
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- Author — Last Edited: August 7, 2018
Sogholan, Samara. (2016). Disulfiram Toxicity. February 2017. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/814525-overview
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2009). Incorporating Alcohol Pharmacotherapies Into Medical Practice. February 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64036/
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2012). Disulfiram. February 2017. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a682602.html
Mayo Clinic. (2015). Disulfiram (Oral Route). February 2017. http://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/disulfiram-oral-route/description/drg-20063488
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2007). Alcohol Metabolism: An Update. February 2017. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa72/aa72.htm