Treating Addiction With Medication

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Hand holding prescription drug

Most people are familiar with taking prescription medications like antibiotics when they get sick. Some people also are prescribed medication to help with a problem like depression or ADHD. Did you know that some (not all) drug addictions actually can be treated with prescription medications, too?

It may seem odd that someone addicted to a drug like heroin would start taking another drug so they can stop using heroin. But research shows that some people respond very well to what is called “medication-assisted treatment.”

Why Does Medication Help?

If a person is addicted to an opioid (like heroin or prescription pain relievers), medication can help him or her get back to a better state of mind—beyond just thinking about seeking and using the drug. It also can help ease withdrawal and cravings, which can give a person who is addicted the chance to focus on changes needed to recover.

Taking medication for opioid addiction is like taking medication to control heart disease or diabetes. It is not the same as substituting one addictive drug for another. Used properly, the medication does not create a new addiction. 

How Does Medication Work?

Medications to treat opioid addiction (like methadone and buprenorphine) affect the same brain areas as the drugs of abuse they are opposing (like heroin and OxyContin)—but in different ways. Anti-addiction medications “trick” the brain into thinking it is still getting the drug, which stops withdrawal. They help the person feel normal, not high, and reduce drug cravings.

Alcohol dependence also may be treated with medication. Three oral medications and one that is injected have been shown to help patients reduce drinking, avoid relapse to heavy drinking, or stop drinking altogether.

Of course, these medications aren’t available over the counter at your local pharmacy. They are dispensed at treatment centers or by primary care doctors approved to prescribe them.

Medication isn’t the only treatment for opioid or alcohol dependence. Adding counseling or therapy can help, and the support of family and friends is often crucial to a person’s success. See NIDA’s page, Seeking Drug Abuse Treatment: Know What To Ask.

To learn more, read Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction: Facts for Families and Friends.  

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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