Whether an alcoholic beverage is part of your nightly routine, a weekend night out or simply a special occasion occurrence, with almost half of the U.S. population using at least one prescription drug, it’s important to consider the dangers of mixing alcohol with medications.
But how much is too much?
To keep your risk of dangerous drug interactions low, stay within both the single-day AND weekly limits.
- Men: No more than four drinks on any day AND no more than 14 drinks per week
- Women: No more than three drinks on any day AND no more than seven drinks per week
- If you’re over 65, regardless of gender: No more than three drinks on any day AND no more than seven drinks per week
Women, in general, have a higher risk for problems than men.
This is important: Many medical conditions can be made worse by drinking. Some medications can increase the dangerous effects of alcohol.
What kinds of dangers are we talking about?
Some of the dangers of mixing alcohol with medications include:
- Drowsiness, dizziness, difficulty concentrating
- Increased risk for overdose
- Rapid heartbeat or sudden changes in blood pressure – other heart problems including heart attack
- Slowed or difficulty breathing
- Liver damage, stomach bleeding, stroke
- Nausea and vomiting
Given these dangers, what does the average person need to know?
- Medicines can have many ingredients. It’s important to know what your medications contain to determine whether or not they may interact with alcohol. Always check the label for all the ingredients.
- Some medicines already contain alcohol. Up to 10 percent alcohol is possible. Cough syrup and laxatives are examples of medications that can contain alcohol.
- Older people may be at a higher risk. As you age, the body’s ability to break down alcohol slows. This means that the alcohol can stay in the body longer. Older people are also more likely to be on one or more medications that can interact with alcohol.
- Timing is important. Some medications may stay in the body for hours to days – or even longer! You might see harmful effects by combining alcohol and medications even if you don’t take the medications at the same exact time.
It’s not JUST prescription medicines
Medications that can be purchased over-the-counter (without a prescription) may be harmful when combined with alcohol. Some examples include:
- Benadryl® (diphenhydramine) – Can cause drowsiness, dizziness; increased risk for overdose
- Naprosyn® or Aleve® (naproxen) – May lead to ulcers, stomach bleeding, liver damage, rapid heartbeat
- Zantac® (ranitidine) – Can lead to rapid heartbeat, increased alcohol effect
- Unisom® (doxylamine) – May lead to drowsiness, sleepiness, dizziness, slowed or difficulty breathing, memory problems
Herbal remedies may also be harmful when combined with alcohol. Some examples include:
- Kava Kava – May lead to liver damage, drowsiness
- St. John’s Wort – Can cause drowsiness, dizziness; increased risk for overdose; increased feelings of depression or hopelessness
- Chamomile, valerian or lavender – May cause increased drowsiness
It’s important to discuss with your pharmacist or other health care provider whether the medications you’re taking may interact harmfully with alcohol.
Whenever you have questions or concerns about prescriptions or over-the-counter medications, ask your local pharmacist.
Brittany Jensen is a pharmacist at Aurora Cancer Care in South Eastern Wisconsin.