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If you want to cut back or quit drinking, 12-step or abstinence-based programs aren’t the only options. In fact, research shows that many people have more success when they combine anti-craving medications with personalized one-on-one support, and are able to set their own goals around alcohol, rather than abide by the goals of a program. One of the medications Ria Health prescribes for alcohol dependence is naltrexone. If you’re considering this drug, you’re probably wondering how safe it is. In this post, we’ll outline the side effects of naltrexone and whether it could be right for you.
What Is Naltrexone?
Naltrexone is an anti-craving medication that’s prescribed to treat alcohol use disorder.
It’s FDA-approved for alcohol dependence, but it was first used to help prevent relapse in people dependent on opioids. When someone uses an opiate drug like heroin or oxycodone, naltrexone stops the person from feeling the pleasure or sense of euphoria they usually do. That’s because naltrexone is an opiate antagonist, meaning it blocks the body from responding to endorphins.
Although alcohol isn’t an opiate drug, researchers have found that naltrexone works in a similar way with alcohol by blocking alcohol-induced pleasure. Typically, a person takes naltrexone at the beginning of the day or when they anticipate drinking. They still feel the intoxicating effects of alcohol while taking naltrexone, but the pleasure effects of alcohol decrease. Over time, as the brain stops making the connection between alcohol and pleasure, many people find it easier to stop drinking after the first or second drink. The drug works to gradually undo dependence.
Research on naltrexone has shown that it effectively reduces heavy drinking and cravings. Compared to patients who took a placebo, or fake medication, those who took naltrexone also had fewer relapse episodes.
What Are Naltrexone’s Side Effects?
Fortunately, naltrexone’s side effects are mild and relatively rare. A recent review of research concluded that there were only a few safety concerns related to using the drug for alcohol use disorder. In fact, the number of people who stop using naltrexone because of its side effects is about the same number as those who experience side effects from a placebo.
With that being said, there are a few side effects you may experience while your body is adjusting to the medication. These include:
- Stomach pain
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Joint pain
The most commonly reported side effects are headaches and nausea. Women taking naltrexone may be more susceptible to nausea, but it usually subsides as they get into the routine of taking the medication. To prevent this side effect, you can take your medication with food or ask your doctor if they can start you at a lower dose and gradually increase it.
Naltrexone is also a good option for people who are concerned about experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking. Because naltrexone works by helping a person to gradually decrease their drinking over an extended period of time, this process can minimize or even eliminate the impacts of alcohol withdrawal.
If side effects are severe or prolonged, you should tell your doctor.
Is Naltrexone Safe?
If you have a naltrexone prescription for alcohol dependence, you’ll probably notice a warning label about hepatotoxicity, or drug-induced liver damage. However, research shows that it’s only unsafe if it’s taken for extended periods in doses of 300mg or higher. Doctors usually prescribe naltrexone for alcohol use disorder at much lower doses, typically 50mg. If a patient is already suffering from liver damage or disease, their doctor may recommend an anti-craving drug that’s not metabolized in the liver, such as baclofen.
Some people are afraid that their addiction to alcohol may morph into a dependence on naltrexone if they take the drug. However, naltrexone is not habit-forming and does not give you any buzz, high, or sense of euphoria. When someone takes the drug, they usually don’t feel anything other than a decreased desire to drink.
While the drug is safe to take for most people, it does not get rid of the risks of alcohol. Naltrexone might block the pleasure effects of alcohol, but you can still get drunk while taking the medication. This means that you still need to be aware of how much you’re drinking because you could still experience bad coordination, impaired judgment, or blackouts.
Is Naltrexone Right for You?
Before prescribing you naltrexone, your doctor will assess if it’s the right anti-craving medication for you.
Naltrexone may be right for you if:
- You experience intense cravings to drink
- You’re looking to cut back your drinking or quit altogether
- You want to change your drinking habits
- You’re of childbearing age and using birth control
- Your liver is healthy
- A doctor or counselor closely monitors your medication use
- Naltrexone may be especially effective if you have a family history of alcohol dependence
Naltrexone may not be right for you if:
- You have liver damage or disease (your doctor may recommend another anti-craving drug)
- You have an opioid prescription or use an opioid drug
- You’re prescribed disulfiram, another drug for problem drinking commonly known as Antabuse
- You’re pregnant (unless the benefits outweigh any potential risks)
- You have a sensitivity to naltrexone or similar drugs
Overall, naltrexone is safe and effective for many people who have alcohol cravings. Read more about what it’s like to take naltrexone, and other commonly asked questions here.
Ria Health combines medication and counseling to help you reach your goal—whether it be to drink less or stop altogether. Join our at-home program today.