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Information from Your Family Doctor
Naltrexone for Alcoholism
Am Fam Physician. 2000 Mar 15;61(6):1891.
Is alcoholism a disease?
Yes. Most experts agree that alcoholism is a disease, just as high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis are diseases. Like these other diseases, alcoholism tends to run in the family. Alcoholism is a chronic disease. “Chronic” means that it lasts for a long time or comes back often. The main treatment for alcoholism is to stop drinking alcohol. This can be difficult, because most people who are alcoholics feel a strong desire for alcohol when they stop drinking.
How is naltrexone used to treat alcoholism?
Naltrexone (brand name: ReVia) is a medicine that reduces your desire for alcohol when you try to stop drinking. Naltrexone may help you stay sober for a long time. Although your doctor has prescribed naltrexone to help you stop drinking, this medicine is not a complete cure for your alcoholism. It can help you stop drinking while you get other treatments that your doctor will talk about with you.
How does naltrexone work?
Naltrexone blocks the parts of your brain that “feel” pleasure from alcohol and narcotics. When these areas of the brain are blocked, you feel less need to drink alcohol, and you can stop drinking more easily. Naltrexone does not make you feel sick if you drink alcohol while taking it, unlike disulfiram (brand name: Antabuse), another medicine that is sometimes used for alcoholism.
You should be careful not to take any narcotics such as codeine, morphine or heroin at the same time you take naltrexone. Don't even take any cough medicine with codeine in it while you are taking naltrexone. You must stop taking all narcotics for 48 hours before you start taking naltrexone. If you don't, you could get withdrawal symptoms.
Naltrexone shouldn't be taken if you are pregnant, so talk about birth control with your doctor. It's not known if naltrexone goes into breast milk, so it's best not to breast-feed a baby while you're taking it.
Some people have side effects like nausea, headache, constipation, dizziness, nervousness, insomnia and drowsiness, or pain in their arms and legs or stomach. Most of these side effects don't happen very often. Up to 10 percent of people who take naltrexone have nausea. If you get any of these side effects, tell your doctor. He or she may change your treatment or suggest ways you can deal with the side effect.
How long will I take naltrexone?
You and your doctor have to decide this. Most people take the medicine for 12 weeks or more. Naltrexone only has to be taken once a day. Be sure to take naltrexone just the way your doctor tells you to. Don't take extra pills, don't skip pills and don't stop taking pills until you talk to your doctor.
This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.
Copyright © 2000 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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