Key takeaways:

  • Addiction medication often either mimics the effects of a substance or works to counteract its effects. Both types of medication can reduce cravings, but drugs that mimic the effects of a substance also tend to reduce symptoms of withdrawal
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) provides a structured, drug-free place to get drugs or alcohol out of the body and can help manage some of the more uncomfortable effects of withdrawal
  • For people addicted to alcohol or benzodiazepines, withdrawals can be dangerous or even life-threatening. Withdrawals from other types of drugs like cocaine or even opioids are safer, but can still cause unpleasant and uncomfortable side effects

Detoxification can be an arduous process as withdrawal symptoms can be very uncomfortable and for some substances, even life-threatening. Doctors in inpatient and outpatient rehab will sometimes prescribe medication to ease the process of withdrawal, reduce cravings, and support early addiction recovery efforts.

How medications help with addiction treatment

Medication can help during multiple stages of alcohol and drug addiction treatment. Medication can be especially helpful to people in early recovery because it can help ease symptoms of withdrawal and reduce cravings. This can substantially lower the relapse risk for people in the first weeks and months of sobriety.

Addiction medication often either mimics the effects of a substance or works to counteract its effects. Both types of medication can reduce cravings, but drugs that mimic the effects of a substance also tend to reduce symptoms of withdrawal. Often, these types of addiction medications are also addictive in some way, which can make it difficult to stop using them.

Drugs that counteract a substance can cause unpleasant symptoms if a person decides to use, and is meant to deter people from substance use. For example, Antabuse is a medication that deters alcohol use by causing extremely unpleasant symptoms like nausea and vomiting if a person drinks. Other medications like Naltrexone can block the pleasant effects of a drug (like heroin or morphine), taking away the ‘reward’ associated with using these drugs. [1]

Medications will often be prescribed as part of an inpatient or outpatient rehab program. During the course of treatment, doctors may adjust the dosage of a medication to ensure the patient has the best chance of recovery.

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Medications used in detox and withdrawal

The first stage of recovery from addiction is to purge the body of any drugs or alcohol in the system. This process is called detox and involves withdrawal symptoms that can last a week or sometimes longer. Withdrawal symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe depending on multiple factors, such as the substance that has been abused, how much and how often a person took it, and how long they’ve been using it.

For people addicted to alcohol or benzodiazepines, withdrawals can be dangerous or even life-threatening. Withdrawals from other types of drugs like cocaine or even opioids are safer, but can still cause unpleasant and uncomfortable side effects which may include: [2]

  • Anxiety, irritability, depression, or mood swings

  • Nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, or GI upset

  • Muscle aches, cramps, and soreness

  • Insomnia, feeling tired or fatigued, and trouble focusing

  • Sweating, hot and cold chills

  • Strong urges and cravings to use

Medications for detox

There are a wide range of medications used to treat these withdrawal symptoms and will often be administered depending on the patient's symptoms and what substances they are addicted to. Some of the common drugs used during detox include: [1, 2]

  • Benzodiazepines are sedative drugs sometimes used during detox to ease symptoms of withdrawal and to prevent seizures or other serious withdrawals from alcohol

  • Antidepressants are also commonly prescribed to manage the mood swings, depression, and anxiety resulting from detox

  • Blood pressure medications like clonidine or beta-blockers are sometimes used off-label to decrease withdrawals related to alcohol, opioids, or other drugs

  • Opioid drugs like methadone or suboxone are often used to help people withdrawing from heroin or opioid painkiller addiction and can help to ease withdrawals and cravings

  • Naltrexone is a medication that blocks the effects of opioid overdose and is sometimes used or added to a medication regimen for people in recovery from opioid addiction, and also for people struggling with alcohol addiction

  • Nicotine replacement in the form of lozenges or nicotine patches, or medications that can reduce cravings for nicotine like Chantix, Verinicline, or Bupropion 

  • Antabuse (aka Disulfiram) is sometimes used for people trying to stop drinking alcohol and works by causing nausea and illness if a person drinks

  • Campral is another medication that can ease symptoms of alcohol withdrawal after a person stops drinking

Medications are only recommended for certain people and are always suggested to be used in combination with therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, or other forms of addiction treatment. While medications can ease withdrawals and cravings and help people in recovery, medication alone cannot cure addiction.

Medical detox and rehab treatment

Some people benefit from an inpatient stay where they can safely detox from a substance. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) provides a structured, drug-free place to get drugs or alcohol out of the body and can help manage some of the more uncomfortable effects of withdrawal. For those suffering from alcoholism or a benzodiazepine addiction, a medically supervised detox is incredibly important as withdrawal symptoms can be fatal. [3] 

During medical detox, trained physicians will monitor a patient's health status via heart rate, temperature, fluid level, and respiratory checks. If a patient has any co-occurring disorders or underlying physical or mental health issues then they will be administered the appropriate medication in order to manage these in line with addiction recovery, often in conjunction with behavioral therapy. 

A medical detox or inpatient rehab stay should always be followed up with a long-term outpatient treatment program for addiction. Most stays in an inpatient rehab last 30 days but can go up to 90 days or more, but research shows that 6 months or more of treatment is needed for most people to overcome an addiction. [3] If you or someone you know is suffering from alcohol or drug addiction then contact a treatment center today to find the best options for medical detox.