Get help today 888-319-2606 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

Mixing Alcohol and Medications

Most people will, at some point, take medication, either a drug that is prescribed by a doctor or an over-the-counter remedy. Many do so without adequately reading the labels, and either inadvertently or carelessly, sometimes also consume alcoholic beverages while taking the medication. When doing so, they put themselves at risk.

But for people who are addicted to prescription drugs, especially painkillers such as Percocet, Vicodin, Valium, Klonopin or other opiate-related drugs, the risks when mixing alcohol with these medicines is even greater.

Alcohol and Prescription Painkillers

Both alcohol and painkillers depress the central nervous system, which can lead to difficulty breathing and potentially death. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that, in about 19% of opioid pain killer emergency room visits, alcohol had also been consumed. Among deaths due to prescription painkillers, in more than 22% of cases, alcohol was also a factor.

According to a 2015 National Institute of Health (NIH) study, nearly 42 percent of U.S. adults who drink also reported using medications known to interact with alcohol; and among people aged 65 years of age or older, the numbers rose to 78 percent. Older people often take multiple prescription medications, so when they drink alcohol as well, they often don’t know what kinds of interactions they are potentially creating. Even worse, when taking an extended-release version of a prescription medication, the interaction can be exaggerated. The presence of alcohol in the body can cause a pill to release its full amount of medication at once, rather than over an extended period, as may be intended. Then the risk for side effects and adverse interactions is greatly increased.

People, at any age, who have chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart conditions or mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, are advised to avoid using alcohol along with their medications. Yet, it is a common experience for them to do so. Many people mistakenly think that as long as they are not consuming their medicines at the same time as they are drinking alcohol, the two will not interact with one another. However, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Use and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol and medicines can interact harmfully even if they are not taken at the same time.

Commonly Used Drugs and the Dangers of Mixing Them with Alcohol

Not only are prescription painkillers sometimes consumed with alcohol, causing potentially dangerous interactions, a number of other common medications present this risk as well:

  • Arthritis medications can have serious side effects when combined with alcohol. Alcohol increases the potential for this medication’s cardiovascular side effects, including heart attack or stroke.
  • Diabetes medications can have their blood-sugar-lowering effects exaggerated, which can lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels.
  • Antibiotics, while not as risky for interactions as many other medications, can sometimes, when mixed with alcohol, lead to sudden fluctuations in blood pressure. Though rare, a few antibiotics may contribute to liver damage, if combined with alcohol.
  • Blood thinning medications become riskier for bleeding complications or stroke.
  • Bronchodilators (chronic pulmonary disease medications) may have their side effects (nausea, headache, shakiness or irritability) increased.
  • Muscle relaxants, when taken with alcohol, can cause weakness, agitation and mental confusion.
  • Antifungal medications, which already have some risk for liver disease, become riskier for this potential when they are taken with alcohol.
  • Over-the-counter pain medications (aspirin, aspirin replacements and anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs) can cause bleeding, ulcers and potential liver damage when combined with alcohol, even over a relatively short period of time (a few weeks).
  • Over-the-counter cold, sinus and allergy remedies (cough syrups, allergy medications) may themselves contain alcohol, so when combined with additional alcohol, the potential risk for side effects, such as drowsiness or dizziness are greater. One should not drive after consuming alcohol, especially if it was consumed in addition to a cold, sinus or allergy remedy.

Signs of Alcohol and Prescription Drug Interactions

In addition to the side effects related to each individual prescription or over-the-counter medication, the combination of medicines and alcohol commonly leads to these symptoms:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Potential for internal bleeding
  • Blood pressure fluctuations
  • Difficulty with motor skills and coordination

If you take medications and consume alcohol at the same time, having any of these symptoms is a warning sign that you may be experiencing an adverse interaction between your medication and alcohol.

Preventing Adverse Interactions

Here are some guidelines that can help you avoid dangerous interactions between your medications and alcohol:

  • Use all medications only as prescribed.
  • Always read warning labels and be alert for potential medication side effects.
  • Don’t assume that just because a warning label does not specifically state to avoid consuming alcohol with a certain medication, that it is safe. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the safety, especially if you regularly take more than one medication.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about potential interactions with herbal supplements as well, as these can be affected by alcohol use. Also, some supplements can interact with prescription medications, increasing the risk for side effects.

Consuming alcohol along with medications, whether prescriptions or over-the-counter medicines, always puts you at risk. If you are addicted, or if you feel that you have the potential to become addicted–to either alcohol or some type of medication–you are in even greater potential danger. Rather than ignore this danger, you owe it to yourself to seek help. By reaching out to your doctor or a mental health professional, you can save yourself from experiencing possible severe side effects or even death, and can begin to move toward greater health and well-being.



Images Courtesy of iStock

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.