“To your health!”: Making decisions about alcohol and prescription drugs

It’s the holidays! All around the world, people are preparing to
celebrate a number of important holidays, including New Year’s Eve.

Alcohol is often a standard part of these celebrations, as well as being a part of many people’s everyday lives. US data show 30% of Americans have at least one alcoholic drink per day while 40% of Canadians drink enough to be considered “higher risk” drinkers. We also know
significant numbers of Americans and Canadians take prescription medications—55%
and 41% respectively.

But mixing alcohol with prescription medications can be quite dangerous—definitely not the kind of excitement you’re looking to have this holiday season!

What’s the problem with mixing alcohol and prescription meds?

Alcohol and medications can interact in
different ways; depending on the medication, this can cause a range of responses
in your body. Alcohol can make your medicine work less effectively or even make
it toxic. Alcohol may make possible side effects worse and can even create new
symptoms. In either case, you may feel quite sick or uncomfortable. Mixing
alcohol with your meds may also intensify your response to alcohol, making you
drunker more quickly.

If you are female or older, the effect of mixing alcohol with drugs may
be greater than if you are male or younger. Women have a lower level of an
enzyme that helps breaks down alcohol so they are more likely to experience more
harmful effects even if they drink the same amount as men. As well, as we age,
it takes our bodies longer to break down alcohol, so we keep it in our system
longer. Seniors are more likely to take multiple medications, so the risk of a
bad interaction is much higher.

If you plan to drink, let your doctor know.

Often people underplay the amount they drink, whether because they’re
uncomfortable with their own habits or because they’re afraid doctors will
judge them for those habits. And while it’s true that generally, health care
practitioners of all kinds would advise everyone to drink less, they’re also
the people best placed to help with all aspects of health care—and they can only
really advise you properly if they know what’s going on. This necessarily
includes your alcohol intake. That’s why it is so important for you to ask your
doctor or pharmacist about how alcohol might interact with your medications,
either prescription or over-the-counter.

The most common issues we see when people mix alcohol and drugs include
drowsiness, dizziness, increased or intensified side effects, and new symptoms
or the worsening of existing symptoms. The hidden risks include damage to your
heart and liver, overdosing, and death.

some research
suggests that having one drink or less per day (moderate
intake) may provide some heart health benefits, you would be wise to avoid
drinking any alcohol if you’re taking any of the following drugs, including
many common over-the-counter medications.

1. Painkillers. Reactions with painkillers such as Motrin and Aleve include upset
stomach, bleeding and ulcers. Tylenol (acetominophen) can also cause problems,
which can lead to long-term liver damage. You must not drink any alcohol with
opioid painkillers, such as codeine or oxycodone, as the combination will make
you extremely sleepy; it can slow your breathing to dangerous levels, and could
even kill you. 

2. Anti-anxiety
medications and sleeping pills.
can include excessive drowsiness and may lead to a loss of consciousness.

3. Antidepressants and
mood stabilizers.
Reactions can vary
depending on the specific medication you’re taking.Many of these drugs
include the risk of drowsiness and dizziness when mixed with alcohol. Your physical
balance could be affected and your mood-related symptoms may worsen. You could
overdose as well as suffer from liver or heart damage.

4. ADHD medications. Reactions include feeling drowsy, sleepy or dizzy. You may also
experience higher levels of  poor concentration.
There is also a risk for heart problems and liver damage.

5. Antibiotics. Many antibiotics can cause uncomfortable or unpleasant reactions if you
mix them with alcohol. Any alcohol taken with Flagyl (metronidazole)
will cause intense nausea and vomiting.

6. Nitrates and other
blood pressure medications.
include dizziness, fainting, drowsiness, and a faster heartbeat or arrhythmia.

7. Diabetes medications. Reactions include significant lowering of your blood sugar levels along
with flushing,
nausea, vomiting, headache, rapid heartbeat, and sudden changes in blood
pressure. These reactions can happen with either injectable or pill forms.

8. Blood thinners. Reactions are unpredictable. In general, it’s wise to watch your blood
levels closely to make sure your blood is not too thin. When it comes to
alcohol, being inebriated comes with the added risk of injury; if you’re
injured while taking blood thinners, and your blood is too thin, you could
bruise intensely or bleed heavily internally.

9. OTC medications. Just because a drug is available over-the-counter doesn’t mean it comes
with no risks. Many OTC remedies are a potent mix of different medications
including painkillers, antihistamines, decongestants and sometimes alcohol. Reactions
include drowsiness and dizziness as well as an increased risk of overdosing.

10. Erectile dysfunction
Reactions include lowering your
blood pressure and causing dizziness, flushing or a headache.

Your best option: don’t drink.

Because people are unique, their reactions to
mixing drugs and alcohol can be variable, often unpredictable and always risky.
If your doctor or pharmacist confirms that your medication shouldn’t be mixed
with alcohol, it’s best to avoid drinking completely until you’ve finished your
prescription. If your medication is for a chronic disease like diabetes, check
with your pharmacist about an overall strategy with regard to drinking. They
are most up-to-date on possible drug reactions and can advise you on your best
course of action.

While drinking is a big part of many celebrations
and social situations, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, the latest trend is non-alcoholic cocktails, which make
it possible for non-drinkers to sip something tasty at a party regardless of
their reasons—whether it’s about health, religion, recovery, designated driving
or simple taste preference.

Don’t be shy to ask for, or offer, non-alcoholic
drink options when you next attend a party. And remember, while it’s perfectly
okay to say “I’m on medication so I can’t drink tonight,” you don’t have to
justify or explain your choice not to drink.

If you think you may not
be able to comply with your pharmacist’s advice to avoid alcohol while taking
your medication, you may find help by asking your doctor or a support group to
guide you in recovering from alcohol dependence. Taking care of your health in
all its dimensions is nothing to be ashamed of.

Have a happy and healthy
holiday season!