What medications are used to treat addiction?
Answered by Elizabeth Blackwell and Discovery Fit & Health
  • Elizabeth Blackwell

    Elizabeth Blackwell

  • Discovery Fit & Health

    Discovery Fit & Health

  1. Prescription medications can be used in two different ways to treat addiction. The first class of drugs, used when an addict first begins treatment, help alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal. Other medications are used over a longer period of time, to help reduce cravings and therefore encourage sobriety. However, drugs alone cannot cure addiction; all are recommended as part of a multi-pronged approach, including counseling or group therapy.

    Nicotine replacement therapy -- which includes patches and gum -- allows a smoker to give up cigarettes without denying his or her body the nicotine it craves. Over time, the amount of nicotine can be gradually tapered off. Bupropion, sold under the brand names Wellbutrin and Zyban, is an antidepressant that is also used to treat nicotine addiction. While it has been shown to increase success rates somewhat, the majority of people who take the drug are still unable to quit [source: PubMed Health]. Another drug, varenicline, has also been approved by the FDA to treat nicotine addiction. Like bupropion, it is not effective over the long term for the majority of smokers; users also reported side effects ranging from nausea to sleep disturbances [source: PubMed Health].

    Naltrexone is a prescription medication that has been shown to decrease alcohol cravings; it can also block the effects of drugs on the brain. Naltrexone is sometimes taken in combination with buprenorphine, which works in a similar manner. Disulfiram (sold under the brand name Antabuse) works as a form of aversion therapy: If a person drinks alcohol within two weeks of taking the drug, he or she becomes physically ill, with side effects that can include nausea, vomiting, chest pain, weakness and sweating.

    Addicts trying to wean themselves off opiate drugs, such as heroin, can suffer from such severe withdrawal symptoms that they are unable to quit through willpower alone. Drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine ease the painful withdrawal process, because they target the same areas of the brain but are less powerful and addictive over time. Some heroin addicts are prescribed long-term maintenance doses of methadone--in effect, trading one addiction for another, less dangerous one. Over time, the doses of methadone can be lessened, so that giving it up completely has a negligible effect on the body.

    Unfortunately, there is no easy cure for addiction. Medications can reduce the urge to use an addictive substance and alleviate the painful side effects of going "cold turkey," but they must be part of a larger, comprehensive strategy. Popping a pill is not enough. 

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  2. A detoxification center has a whole arsenal of medication at its fingertips.

    • Methadone has been in use for years to treat heroin addiction. It affects opiate receptors in the brain, alleviating physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms.
    • Nalmefene is a prescription medication that curbs the compulsion to gamble. It was hoped that it would also help with alcoholism, but results were disappointing.
    • Antidepressants are widely used for treating addictions because they help to alleviate pre-existing depression, which may have contributed to the onset of addiction.


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