Purpose: For 40 years, disulfiram has been the alcohol-aversive drug used most frequently by American physicians in the treatment of alcohol dependency disorders. We reviewed the clinical literature regarding the risks, benefits, indications, and efficacy of this controversial drug and summarized current knowledge of this therapy.
Conclusions: Disulfiram will produce an aversive reaction with ethanol, usually at a dose between 250 mg/day and 500 mg/day, although some patients may not have an aversive reaction at this level. Cardiac, hepatic, and neurologic toxicity can also occur within this dosage range. If disulfiram is to be used, the patient must clearly understand the risks of drinking while taking the drug, and the physician and patient must agree about the need for continued clinical supervision and monitoring for efficacy and side effects. The physician must also recognize that disulfiram is only an adjunctive therapy and that continued support, supervision, and other therapeutic measures are required. Disulfiram is probably effective in reducing the frequency of alcohol consumption in the compliant patient over the short term (e.g., 6 months). Certain subgroups of patients, such as those who are older, those who are more socially stable, and those who are well-motivated, may experience a beneficial effect for longer periods. The drug may be most effective in reducing short-term alcohol consumption when the compliance of the patient is supervised, although consideration of this kind of therapy includes the practical problems of supervising the patient and concerns that the supervising person may be placed in a difficult position. Prescription of disulfiram without accompanying education, counseling, and concomitant alcoholism therapy is not beneficial. Disulfiram has no proven effect on the long-term outcome of alcoholism.