Mixing Drinks and Medications: A Cocktail of Health Problems

Alcohol and medication interactions may be more likely in older adults and can lead to health problems

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) For many Americans, having a glass of wine or a beer with dinner is as regular an event as taking daily medications. Mixing alcohol with some medications, however, could be harmful to health.

A new study found that many Americans may be at risk of harmful side effects from mixing their medications with alcohol. The authors of this study found that the elderly were particularly vulnerable.

Steve Leuck, PharmD, a pharmacist and founder of AudibleRx, told dailyRx News said patients should speak to their pharmacists about how to avoid dangerous alcohol-medication interactions.

"As a practicing community pharmacist, alcohol and prescription medication interactions are one of the biggest obstacles we face when counseling patients," Dr. Leuck said. "Many medication regimens will be compromised, and importantly, the patient put in danger, if their medication is taken with alcohol.  When picking up their prescriptions, patients should always accept the consultation with their pharmacist in order to discuss all of the important information about their medication with their pharmacist, including the effects of alcohol on their medication."

Dr. Rosalind A. Breslow, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), led a team that studied data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES 1999-2010).

“Our findings show that a substantial percentage of people who drink regularly, particularly older adults, could be at risk of harmful alcohol and medication interactions," Dr. Breslow said in a press release. "We suggest that people talk to their doctor or pharmacist about whether they should avoid alcohol while taking their prescribed medications.”

As part of this study, around 26,000 adults detailed their lifetime alcohol use. They were also asked about alcohol use within the past month. Finally, they were asked about medication use.

About 71 percent of US adults drink, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Breslow and team found that about 42 percent of those who drink may also use prescribed medications that could interact with alcohol.

Some alcohol-medication interactions can be serious. These interactions can cause minor symptoms like nausea, vomiting and headaches. Other side effects can include drowsiness, fainting or loss of coordination. More severe interactions can cause bleeding, heart problems or trouble breathing.

Alcohol can also prevent some medications from working.

Combining alcohol and prescription medications can be even more of a problem for older adults, who are more likely to take medications in the first place.

Older adults may process some medications more slowly than younger patients. The potential for interactions is then higher because the medicine is in the body longer, according to the NIH.

Dr. Breslow and colleagues found that almost 45 percent of the medications in the NHANES database could interact with alcohol. Almost 78 percent of the adults older than 65 used such medications.

These medications included sleeping pills, painkillers and muscle relaxers. Other medications included medications for diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Dr. Breslow and team noted that their numbers showed the potential for medication interactions — not actual numbers of interactions.

This study was published online Feb. 9 in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The NIAAA funded this research. Conflict of interest disclosures were not available at the time of publication.

Review Date: 
February 19, 2015
Last Updated:
February 27, 2015