How Mixing Medicine and Alcohol Can Harm You

Alcohol can make some medications ineffective

How Mixing Medicine and Alcohol Can Harm You

If your physician asks you how many alcoholic drinks you consume every day, there’s good reason to be precise. If you are taking medication, consuming alcoholic drinks regularly could create serious health problems.

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But a recent analysis of data from more than 26,000 adults age 20 and older showed that more than 40 percent of them drank alcohol regularly while using medications known to interact with alcohol.

The results were more pronounced with older adults. Among those older than age 65, nearly 78 percent of those who consumed alcoholic beverage four to seven times a week reported using medicines that interact with alcohol.

Regardless of age, the most commonly used medicines that interact with alcohol were for conditions related to the central nervous system or cardiovascular system, said the research from the National Institutes of Health.

Harmful interactions

The study shows that a substantial number of people could be at risk for harmful alcohol and medication interactions, says integrative medicine specialist Daniel Neides, MD. He did not take part in the study.

Prescription medications are metabolized in the same place where your body metabolizes alcohol: the liver.

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“I think it’s important as healthcare providers that we ask patients to specify their alcohol intake,” Dr. Neides says. “We also need to ask how frequently they are drinking and how much.”

He says healthcare providers should question their patients’ alcohol consumption with every prescription they write.

To tell the truth

At the same time, patients must provide accurate, honest information to their physician, he says.  Many patients worry about being judged about their alcohol intake. But they should put those fears aside, he says.

“We are not here to judge. But we have to make decisions based on that critical information,” Dr. Neides says.

Much may be at stake. Alcohol may render a medicine powerless. Or it may dangerously amplify its effects, Dr. Neides says.

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“We may not be actually getting the effect that we’re supposed to, or we could be getting toxic levels because of the interaction between alcohol and the medication,” Dr. Neides says. “I don’t want to prescribe a medicine that is potentially harmful because of the way it will be metabolized due to alcohol interaction.”

Here are some examples of problems caused by mixing alcohol with some medicines:

  • If you take aspirin and drink, your risk of stomach or intestinal bleeding is increased.
  • Alcohol used with large doses of acetaminophen, a common painkiller, may cause liver damage.
  • Alcohol used with some sleeping pills, pain pills, or anxiety/anti-depression medicine can be deadly.

Dr. Neides says to be sure to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about whether you should avoid alcohol while taking prescription medications.