Volume 62, Number 1
February / March / April 2017

Mixing alcohol with medications

Combining medications—prescribed and overthe- counter (OTC)—with alcohol can have unpredictable and unwanted consequences. We can help ourselves, our family and our friends by understanding the dangers and taking steps to prevent any harm.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about two-thirds of American adults over the age of 18 at least occasionally use alcohol. Moreover, use of prescription and non-prescription drugs, as well as some herbal remedies, is at prolific proportions in the U.S. Due in part to the obesity epidemic, Americans of all ages are taking more drugs to control chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol.

Alcohol often has harmful interactions with prescription medications, OTC drugs, and even some herbal remedies. Some of these interactions may cause problems such as nausea and vomiting, headaches, drowsiness, changes in blood pressure, loss of coordination, accidents, even abnormal behavior. Mixing alcohol and medications may also increase the risk of complications such as liver damage, heart problems, internal bleeding, and depression.

In some cases, alcohol interactions may decrease the effectiveness of medications. Even in small amounts, alcohol could intensify medication side effects such as sleepiness or light headedness, and could interfere with one’s ability to drive or operate machinery.

Older adults are at special risk of alcohol interactions. As we age, the tendency to develop more chronic illnesses increases, so we take more medications. When alcohol use is combined with multiple medications, it may magnify these problems. Older adults don’t metabolize alcohol as quickly as younger adults, so alcohol stays in their system longer, increasing the potential interaction with medications, not to mention increasing the risk for falls and serious injury related to balance problems.

Hundreds of commonly used prescription and OTC medications may adversely interact with alcohol. A few examples are:

OTC Pain and Fever Meds—Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, Excedrin, Motrin Drinking more than 3 drinks a day increases risk of liver damage, stomach bleeding, rapid heartbeat.

Prescription Pain Meds— Vicodin, Percocet Risk: Serious life threatening side effects.

Allergy & Cold/Flu Meds–Benadryl, Claritin, Dimetapp, etc. Risk: Increased drowsiness

Antibiotics—Zithromax, flagyl, nizoral Risk: Fast heartbeat, change in blood pressure, stomach pain, headache.

Anxiety Meds—Ativan, Klonipin, Valium, Xanax, etc. Risk: Drowsiness, dizziness, potential risk for overdose. Slowed breathing, impaired motor control, abnormal behavior.

Depression Meds—Abilify, Celexa, Cymbalta, Effexor Risk: Potential overdose, drowsy/dizzy, impaired motor control, increased depression, hopelessness.

Sleep Meds—Ambien, Lunesta, Sominex, Valerian Risk: Drowsy, dizzy, sleepy, impaired motor control, strange behavior, memory problems.

Diabetes Meds – Glucotrol, Glynase, Diabinese, etc. Risk: Blood sugar levels fall to dangerously low levels, nausea, vomiting, blood pressure problems.

It is important to mention that these harmful interactions don’t happen every time to every person who accidentally drinks alcohol while taking medication. Depending on a person’s general health, liver function, and other variables, these side effects could potentially impact anyone. A good rule of thumb might be not to drink alcohol if you are taking medication that could interact with it. Better safe than sorry.

It is always important to read warning labels on all medications. If you are not sure a medication may have interactions with alcohol, avoid any alcohol consumption until your doctor and pharmacist advises you on any potential risks.

For further information and a more exhaustive list of medications that may have harmful interactions with alcohol, a resource fact sheet is provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The website address is www.niaa.nih.gov.

The Teamsters Alcohol Rehabilitation Program (TARP) and Teamsters Assistance Program (TAP) are services to participating Trust Funds that help members and their families deal with problems associated with substance abuse. If you know anyone who has a drug or alcohol problem or know a family member who is impacted by a loved one’s addiction, please have them call TARP at 1-800-522-8277 or TAP at (510) 562-3600.