What is Disulfiram?
Disulfiram – known by the brand names Antabuse and Antabus, and bearing the chemical synonym 1-(diethylthiocarbamoyldisulfanyl)-N,N-diethyl-methanethioamide – is a drug used in the treatment of chronic alcoholism. It is administered orally or via a subdermal implant, and is a prescription-only medicine in the UK.
What is Disulfiram Used to Treat?
Disulfiram is currently used uniquely to treat alcohol dependence; although trials have been conducted (and research is ongoing) into its efficacy as a treatment for cancers including metastatic melanoma, glioblastoma, prostate cancer and non-small cell lung cancer, it has not yet been brought into mainstream use in these areas. Disulfiram is also being investigated as a possible treatment for HIV, but clinical trials have thus far been unsuccessful.
Why use Disulfiram for Alcohol Dependence
Disulfiram produces an acute sensitivity to ethanol (the type of alcohol found in drinks), making many of the effects of a hangover manifest almost immediately after alcohol is consumed: a person who has taken disulfiram and who then drinks alcohol may experience – within a matter of minutes – a throbbing headache, nausea, vomiting, palpitations, blurred vision, confusion and many other unpleasant symptoms, which may last from 30 minutes to several hours.
How Do Medications for Addiction Treatment Work?
Disulfiram inhibits acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, the enzyme which breaks down acetaldehyde – the product to which alcohol is converted in the body – in the liver. It is the build-up of acetaldehyde in an individual’s system which causes the unpleasant effects of a hangover: after someone under the influence of disulfiram consumes alcohol, there may be up to 10 times more acetaldehyde in their bloodstream than if they had not consumed disulfiram.
Is Disulfiram Effective at Treating Addiction?
Disulfiram itself does not cure alcohol addiction; rather, it provides a disincentive to drinking alcohol which can contribute to a decreased frequency of drinking, in smaller quantities, and potentially to total abstinence. As noted above, however, it does not remove cravings for alcohol in addicted individuals, and if an alcohol addict is determined to drink regardless of the unpleasant consequences of doing so, disulfiram will not address any of the negative health consequences of continued alcohol abuse. Nevertheless, it has helped to treat many thousands of alcohol addicts, and was considered the standard pharmaceutical treatment of alcohol addiction until the end of the 20th century.
Principles of Effective Disulfiram Addiction Treatment
Because of the aforementioned caveats regarding disulfiram’s inability to cure alcohol addiction by itself, it should always be administered as part of a broader addiction treatment program with therapy at its core (see below). Disulfiram should only ever be taken in accordance with the instructions of the prescribing physician, as it can cause severe reactions possibly including death. If alcohol has been consumed in the last 12 hours, disulfiram should not be taken; its effects can last for up to a fortnight after the initial intake.
What are the Side Effects of Disulfiram?
Alongside the intended effects of disulfiram, various side-effects may manifest even in the absence of alcohol, including headaches, a metallic or garlicky taste in the mouth, lowered libido, skin rashes, and liver toxicity – the last being potentially dangerous or even fatal without prompt medical attention.
Disulfiram is Most Effective when Combined with Addiction Therapy
As with any medication used in the treatment of addiction, disulfiram will yield most benefits when combined with therapy. Therapy lies at the core of addiction treatment as it reveals and addresses the underlying causes of addiction and gives patients psychological defence mechanisms they can use to combat relapse.
Ready to get Help for Your Addiction?
If you are struggling with an alcohol addiction, disulfiram can help you overcome it – and, in so doing, help save your life.
Get help today
Alcoholism is such a destructive condition that time is of the essence when dealing with it. If you are ready to reach out for help, contact your GP and/or an addiction specialist today to discuss treatment options which may be appropriate for your situation.
Take control of your life – get started on the road to recovery
You may feel that alcoholism is dominating your life – but you can take back control with the help of medication such as disulfiram and therapy provided by experts. Call your GP and/or an addiction specialist as soon as possible and take the first steps on the path back to health and happiness.
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