Naltrexone (Vivitrol) is a medication which can be used in treating opioid and alcohol dependence, as a form of medication management. When taken as directed by treatment specialists, naltrexone is an effective way to help individuals learn to manage their addiction and avoid relapse.
However, use of the medication is not without side effects, some of which can pose risks to the individual. People considering naltrexone for long-term opioid or alcohol addiction treatment should consult with their clinician prior to the start of treatment to determine if the medication is right for them.
What Is Naltrexone (Vivitrol)?
Naltrexone is an antagonist opioid medication, or a blocking medication. This means naltrexone works in the body by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain, without causing a release of dopamine. In other words, naltrexone causes effects similar to opioid drugs or alcohol in the body without producing the rush of euphoria, or high, which is often responsible for the development of addiction.
Vivitrol is available as an injectable prescription and should be taken exactly as directed. This medication can block opioid receptors in the brain for up to one month at a time. Per warning labels for the prescription, individuals with current, severe dependencies on alcohol or opioids or who are experiencing withdrawal symptoms should not take Vivitrol, but seek treatment for these issues first. Otherwise, Vivitrol can cause the individual to experience severely intense withdrawal symptoms.
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Naltrexone works best as a medication management therapy, or as part of medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Medication management therapy is a form of treatment which allows opioid- or alcohol-dependent individuals to receive medication to replace or block the effects of opioids or alcohol, which in turn prevents relapse and helps them integrate into recovery. Medication-assisted therapy combines medications, such as Vivitrol, with other core treatment components like counseling, therapy, and medically supervised detoxification.
After a time, a person may no longer need to use naltrexone, though the timeline for use will vary by individual and can depend on several factors, including: duration and severity of addiction, substance of abuse, and personal health factors.
Side Effects Of Naltrexone (Vivitrol)
Like all medications, naltrexone is not without side effects. Many of these are similar to those experienced by other opioid prescriptions and are often mild in severity.
Common side effects of naltrexone (Vivitrol) include:
- cold-like symptoms
- decrease in appetite
- joint pain
- muscle cramps
- sleep troubles
Certain people taking Vivitrol may also experience more serious side effects. One such effect is depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts, ideation, or suicide. Individuals who experience this side effect should speak to a physician right away.
Other side effects include an allergic reaction, which can result in a rash on the skin, hives, chest pain, breathing troubles, swelling of the face, eyes, mouth and/or tongue, and dizziness or faintness. Pneumonia can also be caused by an allergic reaction to Vivitrol. Individuals who are taking naltrexone and experience any of these symptoms should seek medical help right away.
Risks Of Using Naltrexone – Overdose, Liver Damage, More
Naltrexone also comes with multiple risks for use, though many are associated with abusing drugs or alcohol while on the medication. Because naltrexone is designed to block effects of alcohol or opioids, taking naltrexone and later abusing these substances puts a person at increased risk for overdose.
An overdose on Vivitrol can happen in one of two ways. First, if a person is taking naltrexone and tries to overcome the blocking effects of the medication by taking large amounts of opioids, they can overdose.
The second way a person can overdose on Vivitrol is caused by an increased sensitivity to lower amounts/doses of opioids. This means that if a person has been taking Vivitrol, then abuses opioids in the same amount they did prior to naltrexone treatment, they are more likely to experience an overdose.
Other risks of naltrexone (Vivitrol) use include:
- Reactions at the injection site: While less common, some people taking Vivitrol have experienced severe reactions at the injection site. These can include a hard feeling in the injection area, pain, lumps, swelling, blisters or scabs, or an open wound.
- Liver damage or hepatitis: Naltrexone is the active ingredient in Vivitrol and can cause liver damage over time or hepatitis. Individuals using Vivitrol should contact their doctor if they experience stomach pain that lasts more than a few days, darkened urine, yellowing in the white area of the eyes, or extreme tiredness.
- Return of opioid withdrawal: People who are taking Vivitrol and try to abuse opioids may experience the return of severe opioid withdrawal symptoms. Individuals considering use of naltrexone should stop use of any opioids, including street drugs or prescriptions, and detoxify their bodies completely, then wait seven to 14 days before using naltrexone. In some cases, Vivitrol may be administered to help treat withdrawal symptoms in a medically supervised setting, but this must be done under the close care of a physician or team of clinicians.
People with certain conditions should avoid use of Vivitrol and consult their physician before attempting to use the medication. These include people with liver issues, kidney problems, or hemophilia, and people who are dependent on alcohol, opioids, or other drugs.
Because it is unknown exactly how Vivitrol will affect pregnancy or children, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also avoid use of naltrexone unless specifically instructed to do so by a doctor.
How Naltrexone Works In Addiction Recovery
Perhaps the greatest dangers associated with opioid abuse is development of addiction or dependence. Opioids are highly addictive drugs which can cause addiction, a mental reliance, within a few days and dependence, a physical addiction, in less than two weeks.
Physical dependence is responsible for causing withdrawal symptoms in opioid-addicted individuals. While withdrawal from opioids is rarely life-threatening, symptoms can be so uncomfortable that an individual will continue to use the drugs, increasing risk of overdose with each instance.
Naltrexone helps people who have quit use of alcohol or opioids continue to remain substance-free. For someone newly in recovery, sobriety is vital, not only to avoid relapse but to uphold the principles which will help a person maintain a substance-free life long-term. If relapse does occur, there are many treatment options available to help individuals get back on track, including use of naltrexone or other medications when necessary.
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Treatment Options For Opioid Abuse And Addiction
Naltrexone is only one of many treatments for opioid abuse and addiction and the medication works best when combined with other key treatment components in an inpatient program. Counseling, behavioral therapy, and medically supervised detox prior to taking naltrexone are all useful treatments for those with opioid abuse and addiction issues.
Inpatient rehab centers incorporate multiple treatment methods for a comprehensive approach, ensuring each individual enjoys the greatest opportunity for a lasting recovery. The treatments which work best for each person will vary by individual need, and treatments used in an individual’s program are typically determined prior to treatment during a clinical assessment.
The best treatment for drug or alcohol addiction is customized to fit each person’s needs, with ongoing progress assessments throughout treatment for necessary adjustments. Once a person has completed inpatient treatment, he or she can seek continued care in outpatient programs, through medication management, such as naltrexone, and by seeking support from family, friends, and within support groups.