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Alcohol and Medicine: Before You Take That Next Drink, Read This

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Before You Take That Next Drink, Read This

You’ve heard all the warnings. Don’t mix prescription drugs with alcohol. Or at least check with your doctor first. Maybe you’re one of those who listen. But if you’re not, you should know the danger is real. Read on to understand the real issues behind mixing medicine and alcohol.

Don’t Drink and Take Your Meds

Sadly, most people aren’t aware of these risks, say researchers at the National Institutes of Health who recently examined the drinking and medication patterns of about 26,000 adults. What they discovered is that 42 percent of those who imbibed were also on meds that could dangerously interact with alcohol.

The fact is, if you read the information that typically accompanies your meds it states clearly that mixing alcohol with certain drugs can cause nausea and vomiting, headaches, drowsiness, fainting, or loss of coordination. It can also increase your risk for internal bleeding, heart problems, and difficulties in breathing. Alcohol may also make it toxic or harmful to your body.

Some drugs, even “over the counter” ones and herbal remedies can be harmful when combined with alcohol.

If you ever have doubts or questions, always check with your local pharmacist, online pharmacy, or health care provider to help you determine which medications should keep their distance from alcohol.

But when doctors say not to mix drinking with drugs, what does that really mean?

How much is too much?

It depends on lots of elements such as medical history, according to  Megan Rech, a pharmacist at Loyola University Medical Center. In general, it should be assumed that even a small amount of booze can affect a drug’s effectiveness and the safety to the person consuming it. Rech says that Alcohol is metabolized in the liver, as are a lot of drugs, so this may cause unwanted and harmful interactions.

Of course, some potential interactions are more worrisome than others.

A way to judge your risk: According to Aaron White, Aaron White, Ph.D., a neuroscientist with the division of epidemiology and prevention research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the more often someone drinks alcohol, the more likely it is for them to have an interaction with their medication. And the more often someone takes a medication, the more likely it is to interact with alcohol.

Did you know?

Some medicines have many ingredients

Some medications—including many popular painkillers and cough, cold, and allergy remedies—contain more than one ingredient that can react with alcohol. Read the label on the bottle to see what’s in your medicine. Ask your pharmacist if you have any questions about how alcohol might interact with a drug you are taking.

Timing is important

Medicines and alcohol may interact harmfully even when not taken at the same time.

More than 100 drugs interact with wine, beer, champagne, and hard liquor, triggering problems ranging from nausea and headaches to life-threatening issues, such as internal bleeding and difficulty breathing.

What does alcohol actually do?

Professor Paul Wallacesays there are two main reasons why doctors advise patients not to drink with some drugs.

  • Because alcohol is a depressant, it affects the way the brain works, numbing the senses so they don’t operate properly. Some medications also affect the way the brain works, and if someone is drinking alcohol there will be a conflict. Alcohol can increase the sedative effects of both, causing sleepiness and dizziness. It could also make the medication less effective. Sedative drugs, such as diazepam/Valium, or any other drug that can make someone drowsy, when they are taken together with alcohol, the person’s reaction times could decrease and they will get tired faster. It can be extremely dangerous.
  • Alcohol can affect the way drugs are absorbed by the body and how they are broken down in the liver. Someone who drinks alcohol regularly, especially in excessive amounts, their liver produces more enzymes so that it can get rid of the alcohol more quickly. Those same enzymes might break down the medication so it no longer has the same effect. This can happen, for example, with medications for epilepsy.

Which Drugs Are Dangerous With a Drink?

Here is a great list you can use as a reference. 

Who’s at the highest risk?

The Elderly

Older people are at particularly high risk for harmful alcohol–medication interactions for several reasons:

  1. In general, the older population takes more medications than theyounger, which increases theirchances of being on one or more meds that interacts with alcohol.
  2. Alarmingly, almost 80 percent of people 65 and older who drink did so while on prescription drugs. The problem with that is aging slows down the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, leaving it in a person’s system longer.


Alcohol affects women differently.

Women, in general, are at higher risk for problems than men. When a woman drinks, the alcohol in her bloodstream usually reaches a higher level than a man’s even if both drink the same amount, since women’s bodies usually have less water than men’s. Alcohol mixes with body water, so any amount of alcohol would be more concentrated in a woman’s body than in a man’s. Therefore women are more vulnerable to their organs being damaged by alcohol.

The one exception is birth control pills. There’s no reason not to enjoy an occasional drink just because you’re on the pill since the effectiveness of oral contraceptives (and other forms of hormonal birth control) isn’t affected by alcohol. On the other hand, the CDC recently advised women who were trying to get pregnant to stay away from alcohol due to the dangers of drinking in the early stages of pregnancy. Just be cautious about going overboard, which can not only cloud your judgment, but could lead to vomiting up a recently taken pill.

Just Say No

The bottom line is consult with your doctor, pharmacist, or online pharmacy about your medications. And when in doubt, take extra care of yourself and push away that martini while you’re taking your meds.

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