The risk of mixing alcohol and medicine
WAUSAU — According to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 70 percent of adults in the U.S. said they drank alcohol in 2019. That same year, over 45 percent of the population reported taking a prescription medication in the past 30 days.
Combining medications (prescribed or not prescribed) with alcohol can have unpredictable and unwanted consequences. Aspirus aims to help community members better understand the dangers of mixing these substances and how to prevent harm as we ring in the new year.
“Drinking alcohol while taking over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medicine has the potential to be extremely dangerous, messing with the effectiveness of the medicine and leading to significant interaction effects,” says Allyson Balthazor, a clinical pharmacist who is completing her first year of pharmacy residency at Aspirus Wausau Hospital. “It’s best to avoid drinking altogether while taking any kind of medicine, but if you’re considering it, it’s important to know the risks.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and American Addiction Centers (AAC), drinking alcohol might make the medication you’re taking less effective. “For example, alcohol is a depressant, so drinking while taking an antidepressant may hurt the goal of improving your mood,” says Balthazor.
Furthermore, the interaction of alcohol and some medications may increase negative side effects. Taking a medication that causes drowsiness while drinking can worsen the effect. The interaction may increase risk of organ damage. Balthazor shares an example, saying “taking too much acetaminophen, or Tylenol, while drinking can significantly damage your liver.” The interaction can sometimes have life-threatening effects, such as major bleeding, extreme drowsiness and trouble breathing.
The effect alcohol has on drugs will vary depending on the type or class of drugs you are taking while drinking alcohol. Depressants combined with alcohol can worsen side effects, with potential for dangerous and even lethal consequences, such as rapid onset of dizziness, stumbling, memory loss, and potential death. Stimulants combined with alcohol conceal alcohol’s effects, so people cannot gauge their level of intoxication, which can result in over-consumption, significant impairment of coordination and judgment, blacking out, and potential death. Prescription opiates combined with alcohol can result in slowed or arrested breathing, lowered pulse and blood pressure, loss of consciousness, coma, and potential death. OTC pain medications combined with alcohol can increase the risk of serious side effects such as stomach ulcers and bleeding. It can even cause liver damage.
“Be honest with your provider about how much you drink and how often. They can determine how much may be safe for you to consume, as well as help you understand the risks of drinking alcohol while on your medications,” adds Balthazor.
To learn more about the harms of mixing alcohol and medicine, visit the NIAAA website.