Prescription Drugs and Alcohol: The Dangers of Mixing Them

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Understanding the risks associated with mixing alcohol and prescription drugs can help you avoid potential complications. The liver plays a key role in breaking down medications and introducing alcohol into the system can disrupt this process, as the liver also metabolizes alcohol. This interference can lead to increased side effects, diminished effectiveness of certain medications, and, in severe cases, result in life-threatening toxicity. Prioritizing awareness and informed decision-making can significantly reduce the risks associated with the concurrent use of prescription medications and alcohol.

Why Is Mixing Prescription Drugs and Alcohol Dangerous?

Why is mixing alcohol and prescription drug dangerous, then? Reasons for potential dangers include:

  • Liver overload: Both alcohol and prescription drugs undergo processing by the liver. Simultaneous intake can overwhelm the liver’s metabolic capacity, leading to impaired drug breakdown and potential toxicity.
  • Increased side effects: Mixing alcohol with certain medications can intensify side effects. Sedation, dizziness, and impaired coordination are common outcomes, affecting a person’s ability to perform daily tasks safely.
  • Diminished medication efficacy: Alcohol may reduce the effectiveness of certain medications. This can compromise the intended therapeutic benefits of the prescribed drugs.
  • Central nervous system depression: Both alcohol and certain medications – opioids or benzodiazepines, for instance – depress the CNS (central nervous system). Combining them heightens this depressive effect, leading to slowed breathing, decreased heart rate, and, in extreme cases, respiratory failure.
  • Increased risk of accidents: Impaired cognitive and motor functions resulting from the combination of alcohol and medications elevate the risk of falls, injuries, and automobile incidents.
  • Gastrointestinal irritation: Alcohol can irritate the gastrointestinal tract and exacerbate the side effects of medications that already impact the digestive system, potentially leading to bleeding or other complications.
  • Unpredictable interactions: The interactions between alcohol and medications can be unpredictable, varying based on individual factors such as age, health status, and the type of drug. This unpredictability makes it challenging to anticipate the extent of the risks involved.
  • Toxic effects: Some medications, when combined with alcohol, can produce toxic byproducts that are harmful to the body. This toxicity can lead to severe health consequences, including organ damage.
  • Impact on mental health medications: Alcohol may interfere with medications prescribed for mental health conditions, potentially worsening symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other disorders.
  • Risk of addiction: Combining prescription drugs with alcohol may increase the risk of addiction, especially when the substances have reinforcing effects on the brain’s reward system.

Understanding the dangers associated with the simultaneous use of prescription drugs and alcohol can help people make more informed decisions. Consult healthcare professionals regarding potential interactions and adhere strictly to prescribed medication guidelines to mitigate complications during treatment.

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Symptoms of Mixing Prescription Drugs and Alcohol

Symptoms of mixing alcohol and prescription drugs vary depending on the specific medications used, but there are many common complications.

Central nervous system depression

  • Symptoms: Drowsiness, sedation, impaired coordination, and slowed reflexes.
  • Significance: Both alcohol and certain medications depress the CNS. Combined, they can intensify these effects, leading to compromised cognitive and motor functions.

Impaired judgment and concentration

  • Symptoms: Difficulty concentrating, impaired thinking, and judgment.
  • Significance: Alcohol and medications can individually affect cognitive processes. Their combination may heighten these impairments, leading to poor decision-making and concentration difficulties.

Respiratory depression

  • Symptoms: Slowed or difficult breathing.
  • Significance: Particularly relevant with opioids and certain sedative medications, combining them with alcohol can lead to respiratory depression, a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Increased dizziness

  • Symptoms: Dizziness and lightheadedness.
  • Significance: Both alcohol and certain medications can cause dizziness. When combined, these effects may become more pronounced, increasing the risk of falls and accidents.

Gastrointestinal distress

  • Symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal discomfort.
  • Significance: Alcohol and certain medications, especially those impacting the digestive system, can contribute to gastrointestinal irritation and discomfort.

Mood changes

  • Symptoms: Changes in mood, increased irritability, or emotional instability.
  • Significance: Combining medications with alcohol may impact neurotransmitter activity, potentially leading to mood alterations and emotional instability.

Memory impairment

  • Symptoms: Memory problems or blackouts.
  • Significance: Both alcohol and certain medications can impair memory function. Their combination may lead to gaps in memory or complete blackouts.

Liver strain

  • Symptoms: Liver enzyme irregularities, jaundice, or other signs of liver damage.
  • Significance: Alcohol and certain medications can strain the liver. Combining them may inflame liver-related issues, leading to potential long-term damage.

Cardiovascular effects

  • Symptoms: Changes in heart rate, increased blood pressure, or cardiovascular distress.
  • Significance: Some medications, when mixed with alcohol, can impact cardiovascular function, posing grave risks to heart health.

Increased risk of overdose

  • Symptoms: Symptoms specific to the medication class, such as opioid overdose symptoms.
  • Significance: The combination of alcohol and specific medications, especially opioids, can significantly increase the risk of overdose, a life-threatening emergency.

Recognizing these symptoms can help inform prompt intervention. If there is any suspicion of adverse reactions due to the combination of prescription drugs and alcohol, seek immediate medical attention to mitigate potential risks and ensure the person’s safety.

Alcohol and Prescription Drugs Interaction

Here’s how some common prescription medications interact with alcohol.

Opioids and alcohol

Opioids include both prescription pain medications and illicit substances like heroin or fentanyl. Examples of prescription opioids include codeine, morphine, and oxycodone. Combining opioids with alcohol can lead to adverse effects like reduced brain activity, slow breathing, dizziness, drowsiness, an increased risk of overdose, or coma. The combination of opioids and alcohol can be lethal, so it is strongly advised to refrain from drinking while taking this class of medication.

Benzodiazepines and alcohol

Benzos are anti-anxiety medications that affect GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors and are used to treat anxiety disorders, panic disorders, seizure disorders, and insomnia. As alcohol also affects GABA receptors, supervised doses of long-acting benzodiazepines like Valium may be recommended to help people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (alcoholism). However, combining benzodiazepines with alcohol is extremely dangerous, leading to toxicity and life-threatening overdose. Intensified effects may include dizziness, drowsiness, slowed breathing, loss of motor control, memory problems, blackouts, or liver damage.

Antidepressants and alcohol

Antidepressants – especially SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) – are used to treat treating depression and anxiety. Mixing alcohol and antidepressants can result in reduced medication effectiveness, increased feelings of depression, sedation, and impaired cognitive processes. In the case of older medications like MAOIs, heart damage may occur. Dangerous side effects include dizziness, drowsiness, increased risk of overdose, depression, hopelessness, reduced motor control, and liver damage.

Prescription stimulants and alcohol

Prescriptions stimulants like Ritalin, Adderall, and Vyvanse are used for the treatment of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). These drugs are often abused for their stimulant effects. Mixing stimulants with alcohol may trigger side effects such as drowsiness, problems with focus, heightened risk of heart damage, and liver damage.

Antipsychotics

Antipsychotics are used to treat symptoms of psychosis and severe depression, can result in increased side effects when combined with alcohol. These side effects include drowsiness and dizziness, problems with focus, and clouded thinking or judgment. Some antipsychotics may have more severe interactions with alcohol, causing breathing problems, reduced blood pressure, fainting, changes in heart rate or body temperature, seizures, or an increased risk of suicide. It is inadvisable to mix alcohol and antipsychotics.

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Get Treatment for Prescription Drugs and Alcohol Addiction at Ohio Recovery Centers

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Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
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Christopher Glover CDCA

My name is Christopher Glover, and I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am currently in school and working to grow in competence to better support our community. As a recovering individual I know the struggles that you or a loved one can go through and that there is help for anything you may be struggling with.

The hardest part is asking for help and we are here as a team to best support you and your decision to start your journey towards a better future. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

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Amanda Kuchenberg PRS CDCA

I recently joined Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers as a Clinical Case Manager. I am originally from Wisconsin but settled in the Cincinnati area in my early 20s.  My career started in the fashion industry but quickly changed as I searched to find my drive and passion through helping others who struggle with addiction. 

As someone who is also in recovery, I wanted to provide hope, share lived experience, and support others on their journey.  I currently have my Peer Recovery Support Supervision Certification along with my CDCA and plan to continue my education with University of Cincinnati so I can continue to aid in the battle against substance addiction. Connect with Amanda on LinkedIn.

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Patrick McCamley LCDC III

 Patrick McCamley (Clinical Therapist) is a Cincinnati native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2019. Patrick received his bachelors degree in psychology from University of Cincinnati in 2021 and received his LCDC III (Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2022. Patrick has worked in Clinical Operations, Clinical Case Management, and Clinical Therapy throughout his career.

Patrick has tremendous empathy and compassion for the recovery community, being in recovery himself since 2018. Patrick is uniquely qualified to be helpful because of the specific combination of his academic background and his own experience in recovery.

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Bill Zimmerman CDCA

Bill Zimmerman is a Greater Cincinnati Area native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2018. Bill received his (Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2020.

Bill has worked in Clinical Operations in both support and supervision, and Program facilitating and 12 step recovery support during his career. Bill has a passion for the recovery community, having been in recovery himself since 1982. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn

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Taylor Lilley CDCA, PRS

Growing up in Louisiana with addiction running rampant on both sides of my family. A life away from drugs and alcohol seemed impossible for someone like me. I remember what it was like sitting across from someone thinking there is no way they could ever understand what I was going through.

Sharing my experience offers a credibility and a certain type of trust with clients that only someone who has walked down this road can illustrate. To immerse myself further into the field of addiction, I am currently studying at Cincinnati State for Human and Social Services.  I hope I never forget where I came from, if I can do it, so can you!

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Thomas Hunter LSW

Hello my name is Thomas Hunter. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am a licensed social worker.In my scope of practice I have worked in the areas of mental health and recovery for thirty years. The clients I have worked with in my career have ranged in age from seven to seventy.

I strive each day to serve my purpose of helping those in need and I believe I do so by utilizing all of my experiences to accomplish my goal of supporting those who desire to establish their sobriety and maintain it in their recovery. Connect with Thomas on LinkedIn.

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Mary D.Porter,LICDC

 My name is Mary D. Porter. I received my Masters of Social Work in 2008 from The University of Cincinnati. I received My Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor Licensure in 2001. I retired from The Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center on April 14, 2014. Currently, I am the Associate Clinical Director for The Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers in Cincinnati.. Due to the fourth wave of the Opioid Epidemic in 2019,  I decided to enter back into the workforce to assist the addicted population.

The overdoses were astounding and I wanted to help.  I consider myself  to be an advocate for the addicted population. My compassion, resilience, empathy, wisdom, knowledge, experience and  love I have for this forgotten population goes beyond words. I consider what I do for the addicted population as a calling versus a “career,” because I too was once an “addict and alcoholic.” Today I am 45.5 years alcohol and substance free.

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Ben Lemmon LCDC III

Hello, my name is Ben Lemmon, and I’m the Vice President and Clinical Director at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers. I’ve been working in the addiction and mental health field since 2013 and decided to enter the field after overcoming my own challenges with addiction.

When I first meet a client, I always explain to them that the reason we are meeting is because they are not capable of obtaining or maintaining sobriety, and my goal is to create a person that can maintain sobriety. I believe a person’s personality is made up of their thoughts, feelings and actions and my job is to help clients identify the thoughts, feelings and actions that have them disconnected from recovery and provide them with the tools to live a healthy and happy life. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn