Two drugs that have shown to be effective in helping alcoholics combat the urge to drink alcohol are being almost ignored and rarely prescribed, latest review has found.

Approved for the treatment of alcoholism for more than ten years, the drugs acamprosate and naltrexone reduce alcohol cravings by modifying the brain's system of chemical reward, but have been underprescribed and underused, the review found.

A team led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reviewed the findings of trials of medications for alcoholism stretching back over decades, finding the two drugs as effective as some more frequently-prescribed medications.

The drugs, combined with psychological counseling or support from organizations including Alcoholics Anonymous, can be effective in helping people avoid alcohol, the researchers reported in the journal JAMA of the American Medical Association.

"Most people with alcohol use disorders aren't getting any treatment, and only about 10 percent are getting a medication as part of their treatment," Dr. Daniel Jonas, lead researcher and a UNC professor of medicine, said.

The latest study can help convince doctors that acamprosate and naltrexone, while not cure-alls, can be used to help numbers of patients, says George Koob, head of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who was not a part of the study team.

"This is an important paper," he says. "There are effective medications for the treatment of alcoholism, and it would be great if the world would use them."

As many as 18 million Americans have issues with alcohol abuse, federal data shows.

While naltrexone and acamprosate do have side effects including headaches, dizziness and nausea, the review showed them to be more effective than the older, widely-used aversion therapy drug Antabuse.

That drug makes people physically ill if they consume alcohol, and many people being treated with it simply choose to stop using it.

Even with side effects, naltrexone and acamprosate deserve wider use, the researchers said.

"These drugs are really underused quite a bit, and our findings show that they can help thousands and thousands of people," Jonas says. "They're not blockbuster. They're not going to work for everybody. But they can make a difference for a lot of people."

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