Pharmacological treatment

Chemical addictions are often treated with chemicals, as medication

The most basic pharmacological approach, which is maintenance rather than treatment, is to prescribe the drug the patient depends on, as used to happen for heroin addicts in the UK.

An addict may be given an alternative, less harmful drug, such as methadone for heroin addiction. Nicotine patches to help people quit smoking are another example of this tactic. Other devices, such as the nicotine inhaler, combine the craved chemical with some key behaviours linked to the addiction (raising a cigarette to the mouth and inhaling). This aims to help the individual cope with and reduce the habitual behaviours that have been associated with the addiction.

If an addict comes off their drug, they may need short-term medication to deal with withdrawal. One drug, buprenorphine, is used for recovering heroin addicts. It acts in multiple ways, by reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms, and also stopping the action of heroin if the patient uses. Other drugs, such as nalmefene, target alcohol addicts, and aim to reduce cravings in order to help the individual stop drinking. Most medication is used in combination with therapy, which has been suggested to be better than therapy alone.

Then there are longer-term efforts to prevent relapse. These can involve other medications, which dampen the craving for the drug, along with intensive, regular counselling to try to understand how the addiction arose and how best to move on. The brain changes induced by addiction are probably reversible, but to change your brain, you must first change your mind.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Addiction’ in June 2010 and reviewed and updated in September 2015.

Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development