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Can Suboxone help with alcohol withdrawal?

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While Suboxone could be helpful for some people with alcohol use disorder, it isn't the best choice for alcohol withdrawal treatment.

To recover from alcohol use disorder, you must quit drinking. But if you've consumed large amounts of alcohol for a long time, cold-turkey sobriety could be dangerous for your health. 

Researchers say Suboxone can help ease cravings associated with alcohol withdrawal.[1] If your team is worried you'll relapse to drinking before your treatment starts to work, Suboxone may help. But it's probably not the only therapy you need. 

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Heavy, long-term drinkers change their brain chemistry. In time, their brain cells work best when alcohol is present. When they stop drinking quickly, their cells shoot off too many electrical signals. 

Symptoms start within about 8 hours of the last drink, and they can peak at about 72 hours.[2] You might feel the following:

  • Anxious
  • Depressed
  • Disoriented 
  • Irritable
  • Jumpy 
  • Tired 

In serious cases, people begin to hallucinate, and they grow increasingly agitated. In time, you can develop life-threatening seizures. 

Alcohol withdrawal treatment aims to help you get sober safely. While Suboxone could help to ease your cravings, it may not be capable of keeping you safe as your brain adjusts to the removal of alcohol.

Medications Used in Alcohol Withdrawal

Enroll in an alcohol detoxification program, and your team will develop a plan just for you. Sometimes, you need medications to amend overactive brain cells. 

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that can calm your overactive nervous system. Benzodiazepine medications boost GABA levels. The right dose could do the following:[3]

  • Reduce your heart rate
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Ease anxiety 
  • Prevent seizures 

Treatment teams typically administer high doses of benzodiazepines early in your alcohol detox program, and a tapering dose allows you to get sober without experiencing fatal problems. At the end of your detox, you're typically taking no benzodiazepines at all. 

What Comes After Alcohol Detox?

When you're done with detoxification, you have no alcohol in your body. But your cravings for a drink may remain. Suboxone may help here. 

A landmark study with rats published in 2007 suggested that buprenorphine could be helpful in treating alcoholism, but there is a catch. At low buprenorphine doses, the rats drank more alcohol. But high doses made them drink less. [4]

People aren't rats, and researchers must learn more about the connection between Suboxone and alcohol. But studies like this suggest that some people could benefit from taking Suboxone to curb their drinking. 

A secondary study in humans found positive results with Suboxone. People given the medication drank less, and some stopped drinking altogether.[5]

Suboxone isn't approved as an alcoholism treatment, and people who mix Suboxone and alcohol can experience terrible side effects, including overdose and death. Other approved medications for alcohol use disorder could help you stop drinking without the side effects. 

What Should You Do Next?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved four drugs for alcoholism treatment. 

  1. Acamprosate, which eases alcohol cravings
  2. Disulfiram, which causes illness when you drink
  3. Naltrexone (oral), which manages cravings
  4. Naltrexone (injections), which lessens cravings and ensures medication compliance

If you've tried to stop drinking and can't make the change stick, talk with your doctor about Medication for Addiction Treatment for alcoholism. You may not leave the conversation with a prescription for Suboxone. But you might get the help you need to stay sober for a lifetime. 

SOURCES

  1. Alcohol Withdrawal Craving Treatment with Low Dose of Buprenorphine: A New Experience. Journal of Psychiatry. https://www.walshmedicalmedia.com/open-access/alcohol-withdrawal-craving-treatment-with-low-dose-of-buprenorphine-anew-experience-2378-5756-1000387.pdf. 2016. Accessed July 2022.
  2. Alcohol Withdrawal. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000764.htm. January 2021. Accessed July 2022. 
  3. Medications for Substance Use Disorders. Social Work in Public Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3767185/. 2013. Accessed July 2022. 
  4. Buprenorphine Reduces Alcohol Drinking Through Activation of the Nociceptin/Orphanin FQ-NOP Receptor System. Biological Psychiatry. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16533497/. January 2007. Accessed July 2022. 
  5. High-Dose Buprenorphine: A Last-Resort Drug for Treatment-Resistant Alcohol Use Disorder. Preliminary Results of a Compassionate Observational Pilot Study. French Journal of Psychiatry. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2590241519303411. November 2018. Accessed July 2022. 

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