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Antabuse and the Birth of Medication for Alcoholism

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Medication to treat alcoholism continues to gain popularity. Naltrexone in particular has earned a loyal following for its ability to limit alcohol cravings. Things weren’t always so easy, however. Once upon a time, there were no medication options for alcohol addiction. Disulfiram, commercially known as Antabuse, occupies an important place in the history of alcohol recovery because it was the first medication to be approved for that purpose. And despite its harsh effects, there are situations in which it continues to be useful up to the present day.

What is Disulfiram/Antabuse?

Disulfiram works by making people feel sick when they drink alcohol. Essentially, it causes an extreme hangover to occur almost immediately. Symptoms can include flushed skin, a throbbing headache, neck pain, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, sweating, and shortness of breath, among others.

This may sound extreme, but there was a time in which options for treating alcoholism were more limited. When disulfiram was first discovered as a medicine, it caused a wave of excitement because it represented a possible cure for a widespread health problem. Contained in the story of this medication is the story of a major change in how we treat alcohol addiction.

Early History of Disulfiram

antabuse rubber factory
Photo by Kyle Williams on Unsplash

The world of chemistry in the late 19th century was dynamic to say the least. Chemists seemed to be synthesizing new compounds left and right. Disulfiram was one of these new compounds, and although it got little special attention at the time, it soon found a use in rubber factories as a hardening agent.

In the 1930s, one supervisor at a rubber factory reported on a strange phenomenon—some workers at the factory were becoming violently ill when they drank. This report initially flew under the radar. Soon after, however, a team of scientists investigating disulfiram as a cure for intestinal parasites made a similar discovery.

Dr. Erik Jacobsen was one of a group of “self-experimenters” in Denmark during World War II. These researchers tested the effects of new drugs on human beings by taking them themselves. One day, after taking disulfiram, Jacobsen discovered that he became severely ill after drinking a moderate amount of alcohol. After some of his colleagues confirmed this experience, Jacobsen and several others began researching disulfiram as a possible cure for alcoholism. Work progressed quickly, and soon after the war disulfiram was reborn as “Antabuse” (anti-abuse).

The Birth of Antabuse

Antabuse officially entered the market in Denmark in 1949, and caused a big splash as a possible cure for alcohol use disorder. It quickly became popular and widely prescribed, especially in its country of origin.

But, as with many medications, the initial buzz wore off. While Antabuse helped many people quit drinking, it was hard to be excited about a medicine that intentionally made people feel ill. Antabuse became associated with the reality of what it was—an unpleasant, but useful option for treating a challenging health issue.

After approval by the FDA in 1951, Antabuse became one of numerous techniques to treat alcoholism in the U.S. It soon blended into the background.

The Concept of Medication for Alcoholism

antabuse empty pill bottles
Photo by Haley Lawrence on Unsplash

In the big picture, however, Antabuse played an important role in changing alcohol addiction treatment. As the idea of addiction as a “moral failing” gradually fell out of favor, the idea of alcoholism as a chronic disease gained strength. The use of medication seemed like an obvious solution, and Antabuse was the first option to prove itself effective.

As time wore on and research continued, more medications were discovered. Naltrexone was originally developed to treat opiate addiction, but it was soon found to help with alcohol abuse as well. Acamprosate followed (also known as Campral), developed in the 1980s and approved in the U.S. in 2004. The work of Dr. John David Sinclair, and the spread of the Sinclair Method which bears his name, also had a significant impact. Today, more people than ever are aware that medication for alcoholism is an option.

Antabuse Today

Antabuse continues to have a loyal following in Denmark, its country of origin, and remains available in many treatment programs. It is an admittedly harsh way of getting yourself to quit alcohol, but evidence suggests that it can still be a strong option for some people. If you need to quit drinking quickly, respond well to negative reinforcement, and want to pursue total abstinence from alcohol, Antabuse may be very helpful for you.

If you’d like to learn more about the other medication options currently available for alcoholism, try checking out our handy guide. And if you are ready to give medication assisted treatment a shot, you may be surprised at how easy it is to access. Ria Health offers a variety of medications, coupled with coaching and medical support, all accessible through a smartphone app. Getting started is both simple and convenient.

Quitting or cutting back on alcohol may always pose challenges, but it’s pretty remarkable how far we’ve come over the past century. To learn more about Ria’s program, schedule a call today.

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