Alcohol: Why Mixing Drinks, Medications Can Hurt You

Older adults are at greatest risk

Mixing Alcohol & Medication

If your physician asks you how many drinks you consume each day, there’s good reason to be precise.

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Drinking while taking common medications for depression, diabetes or high blood pressure puts you at risk for harmful alcohol-drug interactions.

“Because it’s so accessible and such an ingrained part of our social lives, people forget that alcohol is a potent drug,” says family medicine specialist Donald Ford, MD“It interacts with many of the same systems that prescription medications also affect.”

Your body metabolizes medications in the same place it metabolizes alcohol: your liver.  

Older adults most at risk

An NIH study of more than 26,000 adults aged 20 and older found that over 40 percent regularly drank while using medications that interact with alcohol.

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Older adults were the worst offenders. Nearly 78 percent of those over age 65 who consumed alcoholic beverage four to seven times a week reported using medicines that interact with alcohol.

They’re also at increased risk. Not only are older adults more likely to take multiple medications for chronic conditions. Aging also slows the metabolism, giving medications like Valium, which are processed slowly, more time to cause trouble.

Intensifying or negating effects

Alcohol may dangerously amplify a drug’s effects or render it powerless. “The medication might be less effective. Or you may risk toxic levels because alcohol magnifies the medication’s effect,” says Dr. Ford. For example:

  • If you take aspirin while drinking, your risk of bleeding from the stomach or intestines increases.
  • If you drink while taking large doses of acetaminophen for pain, you may develop liver damage.
  • If you combine alcohol with certain sleeping pills, prescription pain medication, antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs, it can be fatal.

The most widely prescribe drugs that interact with alcohol impact your central nervous system or cardiovascular system. These include blood pressure medicines, muscle relaxers, and diabetes, cholesterol and antipsychotic drugs.

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Honesty: The best policy

It’s important for you to be honest with your doctor about how much — and how often — you drink. “We’re not here to judge,” he says. “We need this critical information in order to treat you effectively and safely.”

If you drink alcohol, even rarely, make sure your doctor is aware of this when prescribing a new medication.

Dr. Ford adds that concerns about drug interactions will become even more prominent as marijuana becomes legalized across the country.

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