Antabuse (the trade name for a chemical called disulfiram) was the first medicine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of alcohol abuse. The drug interferes with the body’s ability to process alcohol, causing serious illness in anyone who consumes both substances simultaneously.
Available only by doctor’s prescription, Antabuse is administered to men and women diagnosed with alcohol dependency. It is generally used to complement other forms of treatment for addiction, including detox, psychotherapy, holistic practices and aftercare services.
Antabuse is usually prescribed to recovering alcoholics for a period of at least 12 months, and it must be taken continuously without interruption to preserve its deterring effect.
How Antabuse Works
When alcohol enters the digestive system, it is converted to a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This substance can cause a number of unpleasant or even dangerous side effects if present in high concentrations, but normally the body is able to break it down further into acetic acid, which is harmless and easily flushed away as waste.
But Antabuse interrupts the second half of this process, allowing acetaldehyde concentrations to accumulate at five- to 10 times the normal rate. All of this poison in the body sets off a chain reaction of symptoms that cause significant discomfort and distress.
The intensity of Antabuse side effects varies based on the amount of alcohol consumed, and only at high levels of usage can they become life-threatening. Fortunately these unpleasant symptoms develop rather quickly after alcohol is first consumed, making it next to impossible for even the most desperate alcoholic to continue drinking past the point of extreme hazard.
It is important to note that Antabuse has no effect on the physical and psychological cravings associated with alcohol dependency. This is one reason the drug cannot be considered a substitute for detox or psychotherapy, both of which have an essential role to play in the healing regimen of people seeking alcohol rehab.
Symptoms of Antabuse/Alcohol Consumption
On its own, Antabuse seldom causes troubling symptoms, although it is not recommended for pregnant women or people suffering from severe mental health disorders or heart disease. Allergic reactions are sometimes experienced by those taking the drug, and naturally Antabuse must be discontinued in those cases.
But negative physical reactions to the mixture of Antabuse and alcohol are universal and frightening. These side effects include:
- Throbbing headache
- Heavy sweating
- Flushed skin
- Blurred vision
- Shortness of breath
- Racing heartbeat
- Whole-body aches and pains
- Mental confusion
If consumption of alcohol is excessive or continuous, convulsions, severe respiratory depression, unconsciousness and heart failure are all possible. But these life-threatening symptoms are almost never experienced by those who combine Antabuse with alcohol, since most will stop drinking immediately once the initial illness develops.
German Study Confirms Effectiveness of Antabuse
Because Antabuse does nothing to end the cravings associated with alcohol addiction, there has been some skepticism about its overall long-term effectiveness. Since Antabuse must be taken on a daily basis to remain effective, it is not difficult for users to voluntary sabotage their own Antabuse-related sobriety, and some addiction experts have been reluctant to endorse the drug for that reason.
To test the true utility of Antabuse, medical researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Germany carried out a nine-year study that monitored the behavior of alcoholics who took Antabuse as a part of their rehabilitation and treatment programs. It was discovered that those who took Antabuse for 20 months or more had long-term abstinence rates above 50%, which represents an impressively high level of success.
Based on these findings, it appears Antabuse is generally helpful to those who need to reprogram their minds and bodies to break their addiction to alcohol. Men and women with prescriptions for Antabuse may be on the honor system while taking it, but it seems most users are motivated enough by their desire to stay sober to resist the temptation to cheat.
The Role of Antabuse in Comprehensive Alcohol Rehab
While the most exhaustive study yet undertaken on the effectiveness of Antabuse confirmed its usefulness as a treatment for alcohol dependency, the drug should not be viewed as a panacea. Participants in the Max Planck Institute study were actually enrolled in an extensive outpatient treatment program that included regular counseling, crisis intervention services, peer group meetings and self-help teaching sessions in addition to prescriptions for Antabuse.
Without this supporting infrastructure of intervention, Antabuse would likely have little effect on alcoholics taking it for their addictions. Nevertheless the available evidence affirms the drug’s utility as a complementary form of treatment, and there is little doubt that Antabuse has helped numerous recovering alcoholics find and preserve their sobriety.