Disulfiram, The Painful Cure For Alcoholism

By Mike Devlin on Friday, November 8, 2013
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“Drinking makes wise, but dry fasting makes glum.” —William R. Alger, “Wine Song of Kaitmas,” Poetry of the Orient

In A Nutshell

For over 50 years, doctors have been administering a drug called disulfiram to combat alcoholism. While it does nothing to eliminate the craving for strong drink, it makes the patient violently ill minutes after consuming even a small amount of alcohol. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and horrible throbbing headaches.

The Whole Bushel

Disulfiram is a drug discovered in the 1920s. It was originally used to treat parasitic infestations, but while in the testing phase at Medicinalco, a Danish drug company, it was discovered that the drug had a harsh reaction with alcohol. More specifically, it served to block the liver from breaking down acetaldehyde, the substance that makes hangovers so much fun. The drug is also being studied for use on those addicted to cocaine and opiates, as it makes it difficult for the body to break down dopamine, leading to uneasiness and anxiety.

Available in pill form under the trade name “Antabuse” or as a subdermal implant, the body cannot build up a tolerance to disulfiram. The longer it is taken, the more sensitive to alcohol a person becomes. While the drug does not do anything to curb the cravings for alcohol, if someone decides to “cheat” and sneak a drink, a few minutes later, they are subject to crippling pain. Symptoms of the disulfiram-ethanol reaction are wide ranging and agonizing, from headaches, weakness, vertigo, nausea, and vomiting, among others. The more alcohol that is consumed, the worse the effects, and at the severe end of the spectrum, it can cause unconsciousness and bring on respiratory failure, convulsions, or heart attacks.

Because of the horrible severity of the symptoms, alcoholics frequently stop taking their prescriptions. One must be in generally good health to take disulfiram, and side effects can be very ugly, not limited to hepatitis and psychotic breaks from reality.

Show Me The Proof

NPR: The killer cure for alcoholism in Russia
Disulfiram — Official FDA information