The National Council on Patient Information and Education (NCPIE) is an organization that promotes safe medication use. Each October for the past 32 years, NCPIE has marked Talk About Your Medicine Month, an annual opportunity to emphasize the importance of good communication between patients and healthcare providers about medications and their potential interactions with other drugs and with alcohol.

While there are many medications that interact with other medications, some of the most common and most dangerous drug interactions involve mixing medications with alcohol. Alcohol may interact with medications in unpredictable ways, some of which can be profoundly dangerous. Here is what you should know about the dangers of mixing prescription meds and alcohol.

Alcohol Can Compound Impairment from Drugs

Substance abuse of illicit drugs is an illness that is compounded by alcohol consumption (which can be an addiction in itself), and alcohol can cause dangerous interactions with many commonly prescribed and over-the-counter drugs. For example, drugs that tend to cause drowsiness, like many cold and allergy medications, can cause users to become dangerously impaired when these drugs are taken with alcohol.

Alcohol consumption with medications can be especially dangerous for older adults because aging reduces a person’s alcohol tolerance and ability to process alcohol. Older adults are more likely to take multiple medications due to cumulative chronic health conditions. The more medications a person takes, the more likely he or she is to experience a dangerous interaction between medications and alcohol.

Alcohol May Make Meds More Powerful or Less Powerful

However, alcohol does not just add impairment upon impairment when mixed with drugs. Some drugs’ effects are stronger when consumed with alcohol, while other drugs may work less effectively, or not at all when combined with alcohol consumption. Drugs that are known to interact in potentially dangerous ways with alcohol include some of the most common ones, like commonly prescribed antibiotics, cold medication, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, sedatives, pain relievers, blood thinners, blood pressure medication, and diabetes medications.

When your doctor prescribes a drug, the dose is based on your condition, size, age, and other factors, and your doctor generally assumes that you will not abuse alcohol or engage in substance abuse while taking the medicine. When you add alcohol (or other substance abuse) to the mix, it is hard to know what to expect of your medications.

Symptoms of Alcohol-Drug Interaction

Substance abuse

Symptoms of alcohol-drug interactions range from unpleasant to deadly.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and interactions with drugs can cause a range of unpleasant symptoms. Common symptoms of alcohol interaction with medications include vomiting, nausea, rashes, excessive drowsiness, headaches, stomach pain, dizziness, and even liver damage.

If you drink alcohol while taking a prescription or over-the-counter medication and experience unusual symptoms, it is important that you contact your doctor. While severe interactions are rare, they can be deadly.

Choose a Doctor Who Will Listen

One key to avoiding dangerous interactions between medications and alcohol is having a healthcare practitioner with whom you have rapport, and who is happy to answer your questions. When you visit a doctor because of an illness or injury, it is important to state which medications you take regularly, including over-the-counter medications, vitamins, herbal supplements, and illicit substances.

Ideally, you should get all your prescription medications from the same pharmacy, because pharmacists can be a terrific resource for recognizing potentially dangerous drug interactions before they can happen. Even if your doctor does not tell you to avoid alcohol when taking a medication, your healthiest choice is still to abstain.

Prescription substance abuse and alcoholism frequently go together, but there are cases where even the occasional alcoholic drink can cause a dangerous drug interaction in otherwise healthy people. Both alcoholism and substance abuse are serious illnesses, and there is no reason not to be open with your doctor if you believe you have any kind of substance misuse disorder.

If you have become trapped in the downward spiral of addiction, whether to alcohol or any other substance, recognizing the problem and asking for help are the first critical steps to recovery. We encourage you to learn more about our admissions at any time. There is no obligation, and we stand ready to offer a helping hand.