Antabuse, also known as disulfiram, is a drug used to treat alcoholism.
The drug has been used in treatment for over 60 years and is one of several prescription treatment options for those struggling with alcoholism. Recently, the drug has garnered attention due to its potential to be used in treatment of other deadly diseases, particularly HIV. In a recent trial, scientists have found that Antabuse has the ability to awaken dormant HIV, flushing the virus into the open and presenting the first step in a search for a cure. Although other drugs called histone deacetylase are able to produce the same effect, they inflict multiple toxic side effects that do not make them a viable treatment option. Disulfiram is promising because it produces the same effects with no detectable harmful side-effects.
Disulfiram in Treating Alcoholism
Disulfiram (Antabuse) has been used since 1951 in the treatment of alcoholism. The prescription drug works by preventing the liver from breaking down acetaldehyde, a substance naturally produced by the body whenever alcohol is consumed. If acetaldehyde is not broken down in the system, it can build up in the bloodstream and it produces a negative physical reaction. These effects can be felt as early as 10 minutes after consuming alcohol, and lasts anywhere between 30 minutes to several hours. The physical reaction is so unpleasant that many users would rather not drink than experience that profound level of illness again. In addition, disulfiram stays in the system for up to two weeks, meaning that any time the user consumes alcohol, they will become sick again.
Reactions to Antabuse vary from person to person and not everyone will experience the same symptoms.
In most cases, users will experience a drop in blood pressure and a rapid heartbeat. Other common symptoms include:
- Intense headaches
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Severe sweating
There are several advantages and disadvantages to taking Antabuse for treatment of alcoholism. Advantages include:
- Antabuse encourages sobriety: Alcoholism is destructive and compulsive in nature. It negatively impacts virtually every aspect of a person’s life. It can be difficult to stop no matter how determined a person is to stay sober. Antabuse is helpful because it encourages users to focus on the negative consequences associated with drinking. With Antabuse, one drink can make a person violently ill within minutes, making it a strong motivator to stay sober.
- It takes only a small amount of alcohol to produce a reaction: With Antabuse, a person does not need to drink heavily in order to feel its effects. Drinking even a small amount of alcohol will trigger negative physical responses.
- It can be used during difficult periods of time: Antabuse provides people with extra motivation to stay sober. Many newly sober people use Antabuse to get through the difficult first few months of sobriety, while others may use it later on when they face particularly tough challenges that make them want to drink again. Knowing the consequences of drinking alcohol helps individuals stay motivated.
While Antabuse is effective in many ways, it also has some disadvantages. These include:
- Antabuse does not stop cravings: Although Antabuse can keep someone from drinking in order to avoid unpleasant physical reactions, it does not reduce or stop cravings for alcohol. Coping with intense cravings can cause a great deal of stress for an individual.
- It can interact with foods and other products: Some foods, such as desserts and sauces, contain alcohol as an ingredient. If eaten, the alcohol in these foods can cause Antabuse to produce reactions similar to those that would occur if the user had consumed an alcoholic beverage. Antabuse can be so sensitive to alcohol that it is recommended users avoid mouthwashes and other personal care products that may contain alcohol.
- It can interact with some medications: Just as is the case with some foods, some medications can contain small amounts of alcohol. Cough syrups and cold remedies commonly list alcohol among their ingredients and can cause Antabuse to produce negative physical reactions.
Disulfiram and the HIV Cure
Disulfiram was given to 40 HIV positive patients in the United States and Australia as part of a three-day trial. Over the course of the trial, disulfiram appeared to have “woken up” HIV cells without causing any harmful side effects. This could help scientists overcome one of the most difficult hurdles in developing a cure for HIV/AIDs. HIV latency allows the virus to lay dormant in various areas of the body, safe from the effects of medications (current medications only treat HIV in the bloodstream). When HIV cells are “woken up,” they become exposed and are able to be treated.
While the study caused only a slight reaction among the medical community, scientists believe taking Antabuse long-term could expose greater amounts of latent cells. Once the team is able to confirm that the drug is responsible for flushing out dormant HIV cells, the next step in developing a cure is finding a drug that can kill them once they are in the bloodstream. Current antiretroviral drugs can stop HIV cells from multiplying, but they cannot destroy them.
The link between disulfiram and HIV is critical because it provides individuals a way to wake up the virus safely and easily. With this discovery, scientists can further explore methods of destroying infected cells and brings us one step closer to discovering the cure for HIV/AIDs.