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Medications for Substance Use Disorders

Learn how medications can be used to treat substance use disorders, sustain recovery and prevent overdose.

The use of medications, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, to provide a “whole-patient” approach to the treatment of substance use disorders. Medications used are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are clinically driven and tailored to meet each patient’s needs.

Research shows that a combination of medication and therapy can successfully treat substance use disorders, and for some medications can help sustain recovery. Medications are also used to prevent or reduce opioid overdose.

The ultimate goal is full recovery, including the ability to live a self-directed life. This treatment approach has been shown to:

  • Improve patient survival
  • Increase retention in treatment
  • Decrease illicit opiate use and other criminal activity among people with substance use disorders
  • Increase patients’ ability to gain and maintain employment
  • Improve birth outcomes among women who have substance use disorders and are pregnant

Research also shows that these medications and therapies can contribute to lowering a person’s risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis C by reducing the potential for relapse. Learn more about substance misuse and how it relates to HIV, AIDS, and Viral Hepatitis.

Learn more about co-occurring disorders and other health conditions.

Medications for Substance Use Disorders

FDA has approved several different medications to treat alcohol use disorders (AUD) and opioid use disorders (OUD). These medications relieve the withdrawal symptoms and psychological cravings that cause chemical imbalances in the body. Medications used are evidence-based treatment options and do not just substitute one drug for another.

Medications for Alcohol Use Disorder (MAUD)

Acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone are the most common medications used to treat alcohol use disorder. They do not provide a cure for the disorder but are most effective for people who participate in a treatment program. Learn more about the impact of alcohol misuse and AUD.

Additional resources include Medication for the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder: A Brief Guide – 2015 and TIP 49: Incorporating Alcohol Pharmacotherapies Into Medical Practice.

Medications for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD)

Buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone are the most common medications used to treat OUD. These medications operate to normalize brain chemistry, block the euphoric effects of alcohol and opioids, relieve physiological cravings, and normalize body functions without the negative and euphoric effects of the substance used.

Buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone are used to treat OUD to short-acting opioids such as heroin, morphine, and codeine, as well as semi-synthetic opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone. These medications are safe to use for months, years, or even a lifetime. As with any medication, consult your doctor before discontinuing use.

Learn more about medications for Opioid Use Disorder: TIP 63: Medications for Opioid Use Disorder – 2021.

Opioid Overdose Prevention Medication

Naloxone is used to prevent opioid overdose by reversing the toxic effects of the overdose. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), naloxone is one of a number of medications considered essential to a functioning health care system.

Medications and Child Safety

It’s important to remember that if medications are allowed to be kept at home, they must be locked in a safe place away from children. Methadone in its liquid form is colored and can be mistaken for a fruit juice. Children who mistakenly take medications may overdose or have an adverse reaction. Assistance needs to be sought for any known or suspected accidental ingestion.

Prevent children from accidentally taking medication by storing it out of reach. For more information, visit CDC’s Up and Away educational campaign. For information on how to dispose of medications in your house, refer to FDA’s information How to Safely Dispose of Unused or Expired Medicine or DEA’s drug disposal webpages.

Find Treatment

Medications for substance use disorders are administered, dispensed, and prescribed in various settings such as a SAMHSA-accredited and certified opioid treatment program (OTP) or practitioners’ offices depending on the medication.

Medications and Patient Rights

SAMHSA produced a brochure designed to assist patients and to educate and inform others (PDF | 415 KB). Under the Confidentiality Regulation, 42 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 2, personally identifiable health information relating to substance use and alcohol treatment must be handled with a higher degree of confidentiality than other medical information.

Contact Us

For information on buprenorphine, contact the SAMHSA Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) at 866-BUP-CSAT (866-287-2728) or infobuprenorphine@samhsa.hhs.gov.

For information about the certification or services of opioid treatment programs (OTPs), contact the SAMHSA Division of Pharmacologic Therapies at 240-276-2700. DPT@SAMHSA.HHS.Gov.

For assistance with the Opioid Treatment Program Extranet, contact the OTP helpdesk at OTP-Help@jbsinternational.com or 1-866-348-5741.

Contact SAMHSA’s regional OTP Compliance Officers to determine if an OTP is qualified to provide treatment for substance use disorders.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 01/25/2023