Side Effects of Addiction Treatment Medications

If you’ve seen just about any advertisement for a prescription drug it will claim to aid bothersome ailments, such as allergies and insomnia. Their television commercials may include a shot of a person relieved from seasonal allergies running through a presumably pollen dense field of sunflowers happy and free, or the insomniac finally going to dreamland with closed eyes and a smiling face atop their pillow. Coupled with claims and compelling imagery is information on FDA approval, studies on how the drug has helped participants in clinical trials, and lastly a warring laundry list of possible side effects (think: dry mouth, loss of appetite, swelling, fatigue, etc.).

It’s expected that with any drug, whether legal or illegal, prescribed or not prescribed, that there will be some side effects. People tend to be diverse in the way they respond to drugs, or experience uncomfortable or negative side effects, as their age, weight, immune system, genetics, and body chemistry vary from individual to individual. As with medication-assisted treatment (MAT) drugs it is important to remember that although there can be side effects the benefits of the medication largely outweigh the risk. When dealing with the disease of addiction we recognize that the disease alone, and what a person does when under the influence of their drug or drugs of choice, can in itself lead to fatal outcomes.

Common doctor prescribed addiction treatment drugs include Naltrexone (Vivitrol), Disulfiram (antabuse), Methadone (Methadose; Dolphine), and Buprenorphine (Suboxone; Subutex; Probuphine). Besides Methadone, it is difficult to say how many people actually suffer side effects from these medications. The most serious side effect from any drug is of course death, but with the aforementioned medications, death is extremely rare and the percentage of people who die as a result of taking them is unavailable.

The onset of side effects from medication-assisted treatment (MAT) drugs are influenced by the following factors:

  • Length of use
  • Method of administration (sublingual, oral ingestion, injection)
  • Time of day drug is administered
  • Consistency of use
  • Amount of dose
  • Co-administered drugs
  • Specifics of the individual (age, weight, genetics, diet, sleep, etc.)

Certain drugs such as Disulfiram (antabuse) are designed to have negative side effects. Case in point, this medication is designed to be an alcohol deterrent, and works in curbing an alcoholic’s drinking because it brings upon extremely unpleasant conditions if alcohol is ingested while the medication is in their system. Within ten minutes of drinking alcohol while on Disfulfiram a person will experience symptoms such as facial blush, blurred vision, mental confusion, choking, sweating, difficulty breathing, anxiety, headache, vomiting, chest pain, and so on.

Methadone is the one medication-assisted treatment (MAT) drugs that can be statistically proven to result in death. The American Addiction Centers reports that when this drug is administered to heroin and other opiate users they are at risk for overdose that has the potential to be fatal. Methadone is responsible for approximately 5,000 deaths annually. The division of U.S. Department for Health and Human services called SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) reports a huge increase in the number of people taking methadone. Because of the increasing opiate epidemic our nation faces, the number of people using Methadone is currently up to 336,440.

Naltrexone was created for those who suffer from alcohol and opiate dependency, and works by blocking the pleasurable effects of alcohol and opiates to the user. Although using Naltrexone may bring on side effects such as anxiety, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, constipation, cramping, and trouble sleeping, it is hard to distinguish these from the actual withdrawal symptoms that may occur after discontinuing use of alcohol and opiates. It is determined that the side effects from the Post Acute Withdrawal Symptom would likely be more uncomfortable, and therefore it will be harder for an addict to break the addiction cycle due to their discomfort without a drug such a Naltrexone. This is a case where the benefits of the treatment drug outweigh the risk for most people.

Always consult with a doctor when considering a medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Full disclosure of health history and other medications to your care provider is of the utmost importance. As for overall addiction treatment, implementing these assistive drugs is only one part of the process. Multiple forms of therapy and lifestyle changes must also be implemented for a lasting recovery to take place.

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