Canada Med Pharmacy

Antabuse for Alcoholism

Wednesday 29 July 2020
4 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. What is Alcoholism?

a. Alcohol Use Disorder Symptoms

b. How is Alcoholism Treated?

II. How does Antabuse Work?

III. Side Effects Caused by Antabuse

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder (AUD) is an addiction to alcohol. AUDs range from mild to severe, although even a mild disorder can cause serious problems. [1] People that have an AUD are unable to manage their drinking habits and may feel unable to function without alcohol. [2] Around 14.4 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder, which is almost six percent of the adult population. This breaks down into approximately 9.2 million men and 5.4 million women. [3]

Alcohol-related health problems usually stem from binge or heavy drinking, which are defined as the following:

Moderate drinking: Up to one drink daily for females or two drinks daily for males.

Binge drinking: Five+ drinks on the same occasion at least once within 30 days.

Heavy drinking: Five+ drinks on the same occasion at least five times within 30 days. [3]

Heavy and binge drinking are most common amongst men that are unemployed and/or aged between 18 to 24. [4]

a woman looking sad

a. Alcohol Use Disorder Symptoms

The severity of an alcohol use disorder depends on how many symptoms that you experience. Common signs of an AUD can include:

  • Strong cravings or urges to drink alcohol
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol so that more alcohol is required to feel the effects
  • Difficulty limiting the amount of alcohol that you drink
  • Finding it difficult to limit alcohol consumption
  • Spending a lot of your time drinking, getting alcohol or recovering from alcohol use
  • Failing home or work obligations because of alcohol
  • Continuing to drink although you know it is causing problems in your life
  • Using alcohol in dangerous situations
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms [1]

b. How is Alcoholism Treated?

Alcoholism is treated in several ways. Before beginning treatment, it is crucial to detox. This involves stopping drinking for up to a week so that the body can remove all alcohol from the system. This can be difficult because of withdrawal symptoms such as seizures, shaking, and hallucinations. People may choose to complete their detox in a hospital or specialized center to better deal with these withdrawal symptoms. [5]

Therapy and counseling are also important in treating AUD. It is important to speak to your doctor in order to find what sort of therapy is most beneficial for you. Some people prefer individual sessions, while other people may find group therapy more helpful.

As well as counseling, prescription medications such as Antabuse (disulfiram) are used to treat alcoholism. Keep reading to learn more about Antabuse, including how it works and its potential side effects.  

a woman in therapy

How does Antabuse Work?

Antabuse is the brand name of the drug disulfiram. It is an alcohol antagonist drug that is used to treat alcohol use disorders. The medication works by causing unpleasant side effects when alcohol is consumed. Disulfiram works by blocking an enzyme in the body that is involved with processing alcohol. [6]

When alcohol is consumed, the body converts it into acetaldehyde and then into acetic acid. Antabuse is slowly absorbed into the body through the gastrointestinal tract. Once absorbed, it prevents the conversion into acetic acid, which causes a sharp rise in acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is toxic and causes many negative side effects. Taking disulfiram can cause between 5-10 times higher levels of acetaldehyde than usual. This makes it an effective deterrent drug to treat an AUD. For people taking Antabuse, even a small amount of alcohol can trigger unpleasant side effects.

Antabuse is not a ‘magic cure’ medication and should be taken as part of a treatment plan that includes counseling, behavior modification, psychotherapy, and a support system. The medication should not just be taken before drinking alcohol, but taken daily to maintain a metabolic cycle. If you do consume alcohol, wait at least 12 hours before taking your medication. [7] Antabuse stays in your system for up to fourteen days so any drinking within two weeks of taking the medication can result in side effects.

a calendar

Side Effects Caused by Antabuse

By blocking this enzyme, many unpleasant side effects occur. A combination of the following effects should begin to occur within minutes of drinking alcohol:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Breathing problems or hyperventilation
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Impaired vision
  • Weakness
  • Sweating
  • Mental confusion or anxiety
  • Low blood pressure [7]

The quick appearance of these unpleasant side effects helps people reduce and stop drinking alcohol. While the above side effects are intentional to help quit drinking, it is important to seek medical assistance if you experience any of the following symptoms. These are more likely to occur when large quantities of alcohol are consumed: [6]

  • Severe chest pain that spreads to the jaw or shoulder
  • Slowed heart rate or a weak pulse
  • Seizures
  • Fainting
  • Weak, slow or shallow breathing
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Eye pain or vision loss
  • Signs of a liver problem such as itching, dark urine, clay-colored stools, jaundice, upper stomach pain, itching, tiredness, loss of appetite, and nausea.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.