5 Addiction Medications You Should Know About

By The Fix staff 05/05/20

Addiction isn’t a moral failing; it’s a disease. And just like any other disease, it may need to be treated with medication.

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Decades ago, addiction was treated in meeting rooms with little more than guidance between friends. While 12-step programs and group supports are still important, addiction treatment has come a long way in the past few decades. Today, there is an understanding that people with substance use disorder need professional medical help to address their disease. Oftentimes, that involves using medication to help treat substance use disorder.

Recognizing the value of medication for addiction

As the opioid crisis ravaged the country over the past 20 years, American doctors recognized that people with opioid addiction needed another tool on their side. The intense physical cravings that accompany opioid use disorder make it difficult for people to stay in recovery, no matter how motivated or dedicated they are.

Because of this, the addiction and recovery communities became more accepting of medication-assisted treatment (MAT). People on MAT still do therapy and often attend group meetings — the cornerstone of recovery. However, they also use medications to help them manage their cravings.

Today, MAT is the standard of treatment for opioid use disorder. Many addiction recovery experts hope that there will soon be medications to help treat people addicted to other types of drugs, like methamphetamine.

5 Common Addiction Treatment Medications

Many of the medications used to treat addiction center on opioid use disorder. However, there are some other applications for using medication to treat addiction, especially for treating alcohol use disorder. Here are some of the most common medications used for MAT:

  • Methadone: Methadone is one of the most common medications for treating opioid addiction. It is an opioid given in low doses to stop cravings and withdrawals. However, most people on methadone treatment will need to visit their clinic daily to receive their their dose. It’s very effective: 80% of people with opioid addiction who try methadone treatment will still be in the treatment program in six months.
  • Buprenorphine (or Suboxone): Buprenorphine is also an opioid medication, but it is considered safer than methadone. Because of that, people using buprenorphine to treat their addiction can get a regular prescription, and they only need to visit their doctor every two to four weeks, sometimes even less frequently. Many people prefer that to daily visits to the methadone clinic. 
  • Naltrexone: Naltrexone blocks the opioid receptors in the brain. Some people prefer it because unlike methadone and buprenorphine, it is not an opioid and cannot be abused. Naltrexone is available as a daily pill, or as an injection that is given once a month (Vivitrol). Naltrexone can also be used to treat people with alcohol use disorder.
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse): Disulfiram is used to deter people from using alcohol. It is prescribed after someone has detoxed from alcohol use disorder. The medication is a daily pill that blocks the breakdown of alcohol in the body. If someone drinks while taking disulfiram they become sick and could experience vomiting, sweating or headaches.
  • Acamprosate: Acamprosate is a drug that that can help control cravings for alcohol. To start this medication, you need to be sober for about five days. Then, acamprosate is taken as a pill three times a day.

Controlling underlying conditions

Using medications to treat addiction can increase your chances for maintaining sobriety. So can getting on medication to treat any underlying mental health conditions that you may have. If you have a well-controlled mental illness, you will be less tempted to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

It’s important to work with a treatment provider who is experienced in treating co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorder. These professionals can help you get on the medications that will be most effective at treating your substance use disorder.

While medications are very effective at treating opioid or alcohol use disorder, they’re not the only treatment you should explore. MAT is most effective when people use medications alongside therapy and behavioral interventions. 

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