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Alcohol and Medication Interactions

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

Examples of commonly used prescription drugs associated with serious alcohol interactions include heart medications, which can cause rapid heartbeat and sudden changes in blood pressure; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can increase risk of ulcers and stomach bleeding; blood-thinning medications, which can lead to internal bleeding; and sleep medications, which can lead to impaired breathing, motor control, and unusual behavior.

One of the most common causes of severe liver damage -- including some cases requiring a liver transplant -- is a combination of the pain reliever acetaminophen (available over the counter as Tylenol and in some prescription drugs) and alcohol. Other serious alcohol interactions are associated with over-the-counter antihistamines and herbal remedies such as kava kava, St. John's wort, chamomile, valerian, and lavender.

 

Guidelines for Preventing Alcohol Interactions

Although most drugs are safe and effective when used as directed, it's important to read warning labels on all medications. Many popular pain medications -- and cough, cold, and allergy medications -- contain more than one ingredient that can adversely interact with alcohol.

If you're not sure if a medication can be combined with alcohol, avoid any alcohol consumption until your doctor or pharmacist has told you that it's safe to mix the two.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 19, 2013
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