Antabuse, also known as disulfiram, is a pharmaceutical treatment that helps recovering alcoholics maintain their sobriety. It has been used for more than 60 years with mixed results. If you or someone you care about is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, here is what you need to know about Antabuse.
What Is Antabuse?
The generic name for Antabuse is disulfiram. It is a small amount of white powder that can be taken by itself or dissolved in water or other beverages. Patients taking Antabuse take one dose by mouth every day. Antabuse has been proven safe for long-term use and has shown promise in treating some patients suffering from alcohol use disorders.
Disulfiram was discovered by accident in the 1930s. When employees of a vulcanized rubber manufacturer were exposed to the key compound in disulfiram, they became ill after drinking alcohol after work. In the late 1940s, researchers began testing disulfiram’s effectiveness at treating alcohol dependence. In the early 1950s, the Food and Drug Administration approved disulfiram for use in treating alcohol dependence and use disorders.
How Does Antabuse Work?
Antabuse works by making the patient feel sick if he or she consumes alcohol. If a person who has taken Antabuse consumes alcohol, within about 10 minutes he or she will begin to experience:
- Blurred vision
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Muscle weakness
- Redness in the face
These symptoms wear off after about one hour.
The concept of the drug was originally based on aversion therapy, in which a person pairs one stimulus with an unpleasant consequence. For example, if you’ve ever had food poisoning and then didn’t want to eat the particular food that made you sick for a long time, that is an example of aversion. Your one bad experience with eating that particular food caused you to associate that food with future discomfort.
Since the 1950s, researchers have tested Antabuse with many patients, hoping that consuming Antabuse and then drinking alcohol would make patients never want to drink alcohol again. However, many of the subjects they tested were still dependent on alcohol or were not ready for sobriety. These patients would skip their Antabuse doses or try to combat the reaction with other means in order to continue consuming alcohol. Overtime, researchers, doctors and therapists have given up the idea that Antabuse can be used as a tool in aversion therapy.
Today, doctors and therapists believe Antabuse is a useful tool in maintaining sobriety for individuals who are serious about abstinence. Once a patient has gone through detoxification, withdrawal and therapy to overcome an alcohol use disorder, Antabuse can help that patient maintain abstinence by giving them another reason not to drink. For example, many Antabuse users feel that they are stronger in their sobriety earlier in the day, which is when they take Antabuse. In the evening, when the temptation to drink is strongest, knowing they have consumed Antabuse prevents them from drinking because they don’t want to become ill.
What Are the Side Effects of Antabuse?
Some people who take Antabuse experience mild to moderate side effects, such as:
- A metallic or garlic-like aftertaste
- Allergic dermatitis
- Sexual dysfunction
- Skin eruptions
However, other side effects have been reported. Due to more serious side effects of taking Antabuse — such as hepatotoxicity, hepatitis and cardiac complications — some people should not take Antabuse.
Antabuse is not a cure for an alcohol use disorder, but it may help you maintain your sobriety. Talk to your doctor about whether Antabuse may work for you.
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2009). Incorporating Alcohol Pharmacotherapies Into Medical Practice: Chapter 3 – Disulfiram. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64036/
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2012). Disulfiram. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a682602.html