Beware of the Dangers of Mixing Alcohol and Medications 

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Mixing Alcohol and Medications 

The holidays are a wonderful time of the year, filled with gatherings and lots of festive foods and drinks. But if you are taking medications, it’s vital to be aware of the potential dangers of drinking alcohol. Consuming even a little alcohol can be life-threatening if you are taking a prescription or over-the-counter drug, or even herbal supplements.

It’s a risky dynamic as the type of medicine, amount of alcohol consumed and physical differences relating to a person’s gender, age and weight all contribute to the potential health risks. And along with dangerous reactions, mixing alcohol with medicines may also negate the effects of the medicine being taken. 

And interestingly, according to researchers at the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers, it is during this time of year that often makes it more difficult for people to pass up an alcoholic drink, even for those who don’t normally drink or have given-up booze. So while I always want to ensure you understand this – I am turning up the volume on speaking out on this subject during the holidays as mixing medications with alcohol can bring your holidays to a jolting halt, leading to serious health consequences. And while I have shared aspects of this message before, it bears repeating.

Most medications are safe and effective when used appropriately, but concurrent with alcohol use, it can increase the risk of illness, injury, and even death. It is important that you know the facts before drinking any alcohol when you are taking medications or supplements of any kind.

What type of interactions can alcohol have with a medication? 

Alcohol is a drug. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration explains that a drug interaction happens when two or more drugs (including alcohol) react with one another. The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) underscores, alcohol can interact with prescription and over-the-counter medicines–including herbal remedies–in numerous ways, including:

  • Alcohol consumption with medications literally competes with the same enzymes that also break down the drug, thereby prolonging the drug’s effect and increasing the risk for side effects 
  • Medication breakdown can be accelerated because alcohol activates enzymes that metabolize medications. Consequently, excessive drinking may call for higher doses of certain medications compared to non-drinkers in order to attain the same effect.  
  • Alcohol can change the amount of medicine the body absorbs, causing a toxic amount of the drug to build up in the body
  • Mere sips or more of an alcoholic drink can intensify medication side effects. This is particularly the case with drugs that affect our brain or cause sedation because they act on the same receptors. 
  • Some medications can even speed up or slow down the metabolism of alcohol and prolong the duration of inebriation
  • And please know too, that with excessive drinking, alcohol can even interact with meds when not taken at the same time

Are there gender differences? 

While both men and women are impacted, women can be even more vulnerable to incur an alcohol-drug interaction. Alcohol dissolves in body water. And because women have less body water than men, they have higher concentrations of alcohol in the blood compared to men after consuming equivalent amounts of alcohol. 

Does age factor into alcohol-medications reactions?

Yes. As we age, our body’s ability to metabolize alcohol becomes less efficient and alcohol remains in the bloodstream longer. And too, with aging, the number of medications that we take often increases. 

What are some common medications that can interact with alcohol?

The following list is not exhaustive. And it is imperative to note at the start, that if you are taking any medication – prescription, over-the-counter, or herbal – and plan on indulging in any “holiday cheer” this season, the potential exists for an adverse interaction with alcohol. Always do your homework by reading and strictly following warning labels – and talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the effects of combining alcohol and the medications you are taking.  Here are some preliminary understandings – again not comprehensive: 

  • Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. And when some are taken in combination with alcohol, its effectiveness may be decreased or side effects such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, and even seizures can occur.   
  • Blood pressure medicines can cause various heart problems when taken with alcohol
  • Coumadin is commonly referred to as a “blood thinner,” but in essence it causes the blood to take longer to form a clot. It is prescribed for those who are at risk of a clot causing blockage of blood flow and tissue death (e.g., stroke). Acute alcohol consumption results in a prolonged effect and increases the risk of a life-threatening bleed. Conversely, chronic alcohol consumption decreases its effect and can make the medication “sub-therapeutic,” thereby reducing protection against clots.  
  • Antidepressants are one of the most commonly prescribed class of drugs in the United States. And, too, alcoholism and depression often go hand-in-hand. Some common interactions of antidepressants and alcohol are: feeling more depressed and anxious; impaired thinking and alertness; and intensified sedation. 
  • Metformin is a popular anti-diabetic drug used to lower blood sugar levels. And consuming alcohol while taking it can drastically drop your blood sugar and cause symptoms of drowsiness, dizziness, and confusion. In rare instances, lactic acidosis can also occur—a buildup of a waste product that can damage the heart, lungs, and kidneys, and even death. It is a medical emergency. 
  • Antihistamines are used to prevent and stop allergic reactions and most are available over-the-counter. Because they cause sedation, the concurrent use of alcohol can compound this effect, particularly in older adults.  
  • Narcotic pain relievers are prescribed to treat a myriad of pain conditions and post-surgically. Because they cause sedation and decrease the rate of breathing, when mixed with alcohol, these side effects are enhanced and can become deadly. In an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol was involved in 22% of opioid pain reliever drug abuse-related deaths (and 18% of opioid pain reliever drug abuse-related emergency department visits). 
  • Sleep aids are a commonly used medication. In fact, one study estimates that a third of women use some sort of sleeping pill at least weekly! When combined with alcohol it can increase your risk for falls, accidents, sleepwalking, and anxiety, as well as impair cognitive function the following day. And, too, alcohol plus sleeping aids impair restorative stages of sleep, leaving you feeling sleep deprived. 
  • While alcohol does not reduce the effectiveness of birth-control pills, drinking can have other negative consequences for women as it tends to leave the body at a slower rate in women who take oral contraceptives. As a result, when a woman who is on the pill drinks, she may become (or feel) intoxicated sooner.
  • Even common pain relievers can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol. These non-narcotic analgesics like aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen, when mixed with alcohol, increase possible irritation and bleeding in the stomach and intestines. As well, some analgesics may also contribute to liver damage that heavy alcohol consumption causes.

If you – or someone you know – should experience effects from combining alcohol and medicine, seek emergency medical attention immediately. And while mixing alcohol with even one medication presents dangers, the health risks of mixing alcohol and medication can really increase when you’re taking more than one drug.

Every year at this time, many severe — and sometimes fatal — overdoses are caused by mixing alcohol and medications. Holidays parties, festivities, and gatherings makes drinking more accessible and even more common. Be aware that drinking even a little alcohol when taking certain prescription, over-the-counter or herbal remedies can be a health hazard. 

If you are going to a party or hosting an event, make this a safe and healthy holiday season, and remember: Alcohol and medications may cause serious problems – and don’t drink alcohol without scrutinizing beforehand the risks by talking to your doctor or pharmacist. And if you are not absolutely sure, avoid any alcohol consumption until you can consult with your doctor or pharmacist.