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How Alcoholism Works

Treatment for Alcoholism

In the United States, approximately 2 million people get help each year for alcoholism. Alcoholism treatment may include:

  • Detoxification: This involves abstaining from alcohol in order to get alcohol completely out of a person's system, and it takes anywhere from four to seven days. People who undergo detoxification often take medications to prevent delirium tremens and other symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Pharmaceuticals: People can take drugs such as disulfiram or naltrexone to prevent a relapse once they've stopped drinking. Naltrexone reduces the desire to drink by blocking the centers in the brain that feel pleasure when alcohol is consumed. Disulfiram causes a severe physical reaction to alcohol that includes nausea, vomiting and headaches. In 2004, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration also approved the drug acamprosate, which suppresses cravings by targeting the brain chemicals affected by alcohol.
  • Counseling: Individual or group counseling sessions can help a recovering alcoholic identify situations in which they may be tempted to use alcohol and find ways of circumventing the urge to drink in those situations. One of the most recognizable alcoholic recovery programs is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In this 12-step program, recovering alcoholics meet regularly to support one another through the recovery process.

The effectiveness of these programs varies depending upon the severity of the problem, the social and psychological factors involved and the individual's commitment to the process. A 2001 study found that 80 percent of people who had gone through a 12-step program such as AA remained abstinent six months afterward, compared to about 40 percent of people who didn't go through a program. Studies have also found that combining medication with therapy works better than either treatment alone. Medication addresses the chemical imbalances that cause alcohol addiction, while therapy helps people cope with abstinence.

Unfortunately, there is no "cure" for alcoholism. Recovering alcoholics must continually work to prevent a relapse. However, a 2001-2002 survey by the National Institutes of Health found that approximately 35 percent of alcoholic adults were able to fully recover from their addiction.

For more information on alcoholism, including treatment resources, check out the links on the next page.