Is It Safe to Mix Painkillers and Alcohol?

The Truth About This Dangerous Combination

Whiskey and tablets. Credit: Image Source / Getty Images

"Do not drink alcoholic beverages while taking this medication." You've probably seen this warning label on medication you've taken, and the label doesn't lie. Alcohol and prescription drugs don't mix. Even the combination of alcohol and over-the-counter medications can lead to severe health problems. If you take prescription painkillers regularly, you risk a dangerous drug interaction every time you drink alcohol.

In short, alcohol and pain medication are a deadly combination, so it's best not to mix them.

How Does Alcohol Interact With Painkillers?

Different types of medications interact with alcohol differently and can have harmful effects, even herbal remedies. Whatever kind of medication you're taking, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, you need to know the risks.

  • Anticonvulsants. Combining alcohol with an anticonvulsant, also referred to as an antiepileptic, puts you at a greater risk for seizures, even if you are taking an anticonvulsant to treat chronic pain. The combination can also cause severe drowsiness and lightheadedness.
  • Opioids. Mixing alcohol and opioids can be lethal. The combination can make you drowsy and cause memory problems. In some cases, mixing the two causes breathing problems and can lead to an accidental overdose.
  • NSAIDs. Alcohol and over-the-counter or prescription NSAIDs aren't necessarily dangerous in the short term, but it can increase your risk for developing ulcers or liver damage over time.
  • Antidepressants: When combined with antidepressants, alcohol can increase feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts, especially in adolescents. Mixing the two can cause drowsiness and dizziness, and it can also lead to an accidental overdose.

Mixing alcohol with any type of medication can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, fainting, loss of coordination, difficulty breathing, internal bleeding and heart problems.

It can also make medication less effective or completely useless, as is the case with antibiotics.

The Risks of Mixing Alcohol and Medication

Mixing alcohol and pills is dangerous, but there are certain things that increase an individual's odds of a harmful interaction. For example, alcohol affects women differently than it affects men because the female body contains less water than the male body. Therefore, a man and woman can drink the same amount of alcohol, but the amount of alcohol in the woman's bloodstream will be at a much higher concentration because of the lack of water. This makes women more prone not only to dangerous drug interactions but liver damage and other alcohol-induced health issues.

The elderly are also at risk. Because the body's ability to break down alcohol worsens with age, alcohol stays in the body longer. Older people are also more likely to be prescribed medication that interacts with alcohol in the first place.

The Dangers of Drinking

Mixing medication and alcohol is potentially life-threatening, but alcohol is a dangerous substance by itself.

Consuming alcohol leads to an increased chance of liver disease, heart disease, pancreatitis and certain types of cancer. These serious health conditions are mostly associated with heavy drinking, but even moderate drinkers are also at risk.

Is it bad to have a drink from time to time if you have chronic pain? As long as you are not taking medications that interact with alcohol, probably not. However, moderate to heavy drinkers should definitely consider breaking the habit.

How to Prevent a Dangerous Interaction

Alcohol and medication can have a harmful interaction even if they're taken at different times. It's important to understand the very real possibility of a reaction. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the types of medication you are taking and how they interact with alcohol. If you're taking medication and you don't know how it reacts to alcohol, don't consume alcohol. It's not worth the risk.

Sources:

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines. NIH Publication No. 03–5329. Accessed 4/29/09. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Medicine/medicine.htm

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Alert. Accessed 4/29/09. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA72/AA72.htm

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