Diagnosis and Pharmacotherapy of Alcohol Use Disorder: A Review

JAMA. 2018 Aug 28;320(8):815-824. doi: 10.1001/jama.2018.11406.


Importance: Alcohol consumption is associated with 88 000 US deaths annually. Although routine screening for heavy alcohol use can identify patients with alcohol use disorder (AUD) and has been recommended, only 1 in 6 US adults report ever having been asked by a health professional about their drinking behavior. Alcohol use disorder, a problematic pattern of alcohol use accompanied by clinically significant impairment or distress, is present in up to 14% of US adults during a 1-year period, although only about 8% of affected individuals are treated in an alcohol treatment facility.

Observations: Four medications are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat AUD: disulfiram, naltrexone (oral and long-acting injectable formulations), and acamprosate. However, patients with AUD most commonly receive counseling. Medications are prescribed to less than 9% of patients who are likely to benefit from them, given evidence that they exert clinically meaningful effects and their inclusion in clinical practice guidelines as first-line treatments for moderate to severe AUD. Naltrexone, which can be given once daily, reduces the likelihood of a return to any drinking by 5% and binge-drinking risk by 10%. Randomized clinical trials also show that some medications approved for other indications, including seizure disorder (eg, topiramate), are efficacious in treating AUD. Currently, there is not sufficient evidence to support the use of pharmacogenetics to personalize AUD treatments.

Conclusions and relevance: Alcohol consumption is associated with a high rate of morbidity and mortality, and heavy alcohol use is the major risk factor for AUD. Simple, valid screening methods can be used to identify patients with heavy alcohol use, who can then be evaluated for the presence of an AUD. Patients receiving a diagnosis of the disorder should be given brief counseling and prescribed a first-line medication (eg, naltrexone) or referred for a more intensive psychosocial intervention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acamprosate
  • Alcohol Deterrents / adverse effects
  • Alcohol Deterrents / therapeutic use*
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis*
  • Alcoholism / drug therapy*
  • Counseling
  • Disulfiram / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Naltrexone / therapeutic use
  • Taurine / analogs & derivatives
  • Taurine / therapeutic use


  • Alcohol Deterrents
  • Taurine
  • Naltrexone
  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram