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Alcohol and Medication Interactions

Alcohol often has harmful interactions with prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs, and even some herbal remedies. Alcohol interactions with medications may cause problems such as:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Loss of coordination

Mixing alcohol and medications also may increase the risk of complications such as:

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  • Liver damage
  • Heart problems
  • Internal bleeding
  • Impaired breathing
  • Depression

In some cases, alcohol interactions may decrease the effectiveness of medications or render them useless. In other cases, alcohol interactions may make drugs harmful or even toxic to the body.

Even in small amounts, alcohol also may intensify medication side effects such as sleepiness, drowsiness, and light-headedness, which may interfere with your concentration and ability to operate machinery or drive a vehicle, and lead to serious or even fatal accidents.

Because alcohol can adversely interact with hundreds of commonly used medications, it's important to observe warning labels and ask your doctor or pharmacist if it's safe to use alcohol with the medications and herbal remedies that you take.

Alcohol Interactions: A Significant and Increasing Danger

According to the CDC, about two-thirds of American adults over age 18 at least occasionally use alcohol. Of these, 52% are current regular drinkers (defined as at least 12 drinks in the past year), and 14% are infrequent drinkers (defined as up to 11 drinks in the past year).

Use of prescription and non-prescription drugs, as well as herbal remedies, also is extremely prevalent. Partly because of the obesity epidemic, Americans of all ages are taking more drugs to control chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol. Because the incidence of chronic conditions increases with age, older Americans are especially likely to take prescription medications -- often as many as 10 per day -- many of which likely react adversely with alcohol.

As the population ages, the problems associated with mixing alcohol and medications are certain to increase.

Older Americans Are at Special Risk of Alcohol Interactions

In older adults especially, alcohol use may increase the risk for falls, serious injury, and disability related to balance problems. Alcohol use also may trigger or worsen certain medical conditions.

When alcohol use is combined with multiple medications, it may magnify these problems. Older adults don't metabolize alcohol as quickly as younger adults do, so alcohol stays in their systems longer and has a greater potential to interact with medications.

Even though most people over 65 drink less than the maximum recommended amount, this drinking is still considered harmful in over 50% of them, due to their general condition, medical problems and medications.

Drugs Associated With Alcohol Interactions

Hundreds of commonly used prescription and over-the-counter drugs may adversely interact with alcohol. These include medications used for:

  • Allergies, colds, and flu
  • Angina and coronary heart disease
  • Anxiety and epilepsy
  • Arthritis
  • Blood clots
  • Cough
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Enlarged prostate
  • Heartburn and indigestion
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Infections
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea and motion sickness
  • Pain, fever, and inflammation
  • Seizures
  • Severe pain from injury, post-surgical care, oral surgery, and migraine
  • Sleep problems

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