Using Drugs Like Antabuse and Campral for Quitting Alcohol

How Anti-Alcohol Drugs Can Help Break the Habit

Woman With Headache
Antabuse Can Deter Drinking. © Getty Images

For those trying to break the habit of alcohol use, prescription drugs may be helpful.

In 2006, researchers in Germany published a study that found alcohol-deterrent or anti-alcohol drugs like Antabuse (disulfiram) and Temposil (calcium carbimide) had a 50 percent abstinence rate: half the people could quit drinking alcohol. 

Although Antabuse had been regarded as the most common medication treatment for alcohol use through the end of the 20th century, today it is often replaced or accompanied with newer drugs, primarily the combination of Revia or Vivitrol (naltrexone) and Campral (acamprosate), which directly interact with brain chemistry.

Most Commonly Used Anti-Alcohol Drugs Today

Revia and Vivitrol can help reduce heavy drinking and alcohol craving, while Campral can be slightly more helpful in promoting abstinence. 

Revia and Vivitrol work in the brain to reduce "feel good" opiate effects. As a result, the drugs have been shown to decrease the amount and frequency of drinking. It does not appear to change the percentage of people drinking. It appears to decrease the desire for alcohol.

The medication Campral may work better for eliminating drinking overall and lessen alcohol withdrawal symptoms by stabilizing the chemical balance in the brain. Studies find that Campral works best in combination with counseling and can help lessen drinking and help a person quit entirely.

Detoxification and abstaining from drinking before treatment seems to increase anti-drinking drugs' effects and make the treatment more effective.

More About the 2006 German Study

The nine-year study of Antabuse and Temposil was led by Hannelore Ehrenreich, head of clinical neuroscience at the Max-Planck-Institute of Experimental Medicine in Germany. The study focused more on psychological effects of long-term treatment rather than the drug's effects. Both drugs are used more widely abroad than in the United States.

Both drugs can cause negative effects on the body when alcohol is introduced. They can make you feel a heavy "hangover" immediately after alcohol is consumed, with severe symptoms like continuous vomiting, throbbing headache, respiratory distress, and racing heartbeat, along with other unpleasant symptoms.

"We found an abstinence rate of more than 50 percent among the patients studied," Ehrenreich said. "Long-term use of alcohol deterrents appeared to be well-tolerated. Abstinence rates were better in patients who stayed on alcohol deterrents for more than 20 months as compared to patients who terminated intake at 13 to 20 months."

Psychological Role in Abstinence

The German researchers said that the psychological role that anti-alcohol drugs may play in relapse prevention support their theory that prolonged abstinence achieved with the drugs leads to the habit of abstinence.

Why Anti-Alcohol Drugs Work

The anti-alcohol drugs clearly do deter alcohol use. The German researchers compared the anti-alcohol drugs to speed (traffic) cameras.

"We know that inactive cameras also deter but only because drivers can't know they are inactive unless they put them to the test. In both contexts, people are reluctant to make the experiment," Ehrenreich said. 

Long-Term Solution 

Severe alcoholism is a chronic and relapsing condition. Researchers suggest that long-term treatment followed by life-long check-up sessions and self-help group participation are what truly lead to recovery.

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