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Drinking and Taking Prescription Drugs Common and Dangerous

drinking and prescription drugs

We often hear about the dangers of drinking and driving, but drinking alcohol and taking prescription drugs is a common and dangerous combination as well. Do you know anyone who is following this harmful habit?


Think about family members and friends you know who are taking prescription medications for their heart, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, pain, or sleep problems. (You may be among this crowd.) Than think about how often you have seen them drinking alcohol. Is this a wise combination for them or you?

A new study from experts at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) looked at the use of prescription medications and alcohol consumption among adults. Two statistics are important to keep in mind when looking at this study:

  • Approximately 71 percent of adults in the United States drink alcohol
  • Approximately 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug, more than 50 percent take two, and 20 percent take five or more, according to a recent Mayo Clinic study. The most often prescribed drugs reported in this study were antibiotics, antidepressants, and painkilling opioids

Before we look at the results of the new study, one thing is surprising to note. Despite the fact that alcohol and prescription drug combo use is common in the United States, only four previous population-based studies have been done. Three of those studies involved elderly individuals only and one included adults of all ages.

In the new study, data was evaluated from 26,657 adults (age 20+) who were involved in the 1999-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. According to Rosalind A. Breslow, one of the study’s authors and an epidemiologist in the division of epidemiology and prevention research at the NIAAA, this evaluation estimated the proportion of adults who drink alcohol and who also use various prescription drugs that can interact with alcohol to cause problems such as heart issues, breathing difficulties, internal bleeding, loss of coordination, nausea, excessive sleepiness, hypoglycemia (in diabetics), dehydration, headaches, and other health factors.

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Here is what the reviewers found:

  • 41.5 percent of current drinkers were taking prescription medications that interact with alcohol
  • 77.8 percent of current drinkers age 65 or older were using prescription medications that interact with alcohol
  • The medications most often used by current drinkers were cardiovascular agents, metabolic agents (e.g., for diabetes), antidepressants, and central nervous system agents (e.g., pain killers [including narcotics], anticonvulsants, muscle relaxants, sedatives, hypnotics, Ritalin and similar drugs, etc.)

If you fall into the 65-plus category, you should know there is some evidence that the ability to metabolize alcohol seems to decrease with age, which means the alcohol and drugs have a bigger window of time in which to interact, according to Breslow. In addition, some medications remain in the body of older folks much longer than they do in younger individuals, which also extends the window of opportunity for interaction.

The type of side effects that may occur can depend on which prescription drugs people are taking, how close together they are using alcohol and medications, and how often they do it. Among individuals who drink alcohol regularly and who take prescription meds regularly, the potential for problems could be great.

The recommendations from the authors include making yourself aware of the potential dangers associated with drinking and taking prescription drugs. Everyone who falls into this category should talk to their healthcare provider or pharmacist about whether it is safe for them to combine alcohol and prescription drugs.

Also read about alcohol use and multiple sclerosis

Breslow RA et al. Prevalence of alcohol-interactive prescription medication use among current drinkers: United States, 1999 to 2010. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research 2015. DOI:10.1111/acer.12633
Mayo Clinic study