The Dangers of Mixing Alcohol and Medications

Two large pills next to a glass of alcohol.

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If you take any medication—even over-the-counter (OTC) products—you should know that drinking alcohol might change how your meds work. Mixing alcohol and medication can also be dangerous. The combination can lead to serious health consequences, including overdose and even death.

Here is what you need to know about the possible unsafe interactions between alcohol and common prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Medications and Alcohol: Why They Don't Mix

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), there are several reasons that it can be harmful to mix medications and alcohol.

The ways that drugs and alcohol interact in your body can go both ways: alcohol can change how a medication works, and certain drugs can change how you feel the effects of alcohol.

For example, drinking alcohol with some prescription drugs can stop the medication from working. Alcohol can also make the side effects of a medication worse or even cause new symptoms.

Alcohol can make certain medications less effective by interfering with their absorption in the digestive tract, or increase the bioavailability of a drug.  When this happens, it can potentially raise the concentration of the medication in your blood to toxic levels.

The label on your medication may not specifically warn against consuming alcohol while you are taking the drug, but do not assume the absence of a warning means it is safe to mix the two.

If you take prescription medication or use a specific medication every day, ask your doctor if it is OK for you to drink alcohol. You may be able to consume a limited amount safely, as long as you follow certain rules (for example, waiting at least four hours after taking your daily dose before having an alcoholic drink).

Additionally, if you have an underlying health condition like heart disease or high blood pressure (hypertension), mixing alcohol with your medications can put you at risk for complications.   

When the interaction between the substances goes the other way, certain drugs change how your body responds to an alcoholic beverage. For example, some OTC products can make the effects of alcohol (such as drowsiness) more intense. More intense side effects means you might be more impaired after having one drink than you would typically be.

Other symptoms that can occur if you mix medications with alcohol include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Lack of coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Changes to your moods, emotions, and behavior

In some cases, mixing alcohol with medications can lead to an overdose or alcohol poisoning—both of which are potentially life-threatening medical emergencies.

The effects of mixing alcohol with medication also depends on certain individual factors. For example, women can experience the effects of mixing alcohol and medications more severely than men because of differences in metabolism.

Older adults (especially those who take more than one medication) are also more likely to experience problems, as the ability to clear both alcohol and drugs from the body is reduced with age.

There are hundreds of medications that interact with alcohol. Here is a short list of the most common prescription and OTC drugs that can pose a risk to your health if mixed with alcohol, as well as what can happen if the substances are combined.

This list is not exhaustive and may not include every medication you are taking. If you are not sure if you can drink alcohol while taking a medication, read the label carefully. You can also consult a pharmacist or your doctor.

Allergy, Cold, and Flu Medications

You should avoid drinking alcohol if you are taking allergy medications or any multi-symptom cold and flu formulation.

Drowsiness and dizziness are common side effects of medications used to treat allergies, colds, and the flu. These symptoms are also common when you drink alcohol. When the substances are combined, the effect is intensified, and your judgment and focus will be further impaired.

The risks associated with drowsiness caused by medication or alcohol are serious, which is why you should never drive or operate heavy machinery while under the influence of any substance.

Avoid alcohol if you are taking:

  • Alavert
  • Allegra or Allegra-D
  • Benadryl
  • Clarinex
  • Claritin or Claritin-D
  • Dimetapp Cold and Allergy
  • Sudafed Sinus and Allergy
  • Triaminic Cold and Allergy
  • Tylenol Cold and Flu
  • Zyrtec

Angina Medications

Angina (ischemic chest pain) is caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. If you have angina, you might be prescribed a medication called nitroglycerin.

If you drink alcohol while you are taking nitroglycerin, it can cause a rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), sudden changes in blood pressure, dizziness, and fainting.

Avoid alcohol if you are taking any brand of nitroglycerin, including:

  • Nitrostat
  • Nitromist
  • Nitroquick
  • Nitrolingual
  • Nitro-Dur
  • Minitran
  • Nitro-Bid
  • Nitinol

Anti-Anxiety, Anti-Seizure, and Epilepsy Medications

Mixing anti-anxiety and epilepsy medications with alcoholic beverages can cause drowsiness, dizziness, slowed breathing, impaired motor control, abnormal behavior, and memory loss.

Using alcohol with anti-seizure drugs can actually cause the seizures these medications are meant to prevent.

If you are being treated for an anxiety disorder or epilepsy, avoid alcohol if you take any of the following medications:

Combining alcohol with medications used to treat seizures can cause drowsiness and dizziness. You should avoid alcohol if you are taking:

Antibiotics

Alcohol is known to affect how well some antibiotic medications work, which means these drugs may not effectively clear up the infection that you are being treated for. 

Combing alcohol and certain antibiotics can cause rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), sudden changes in blood pressure, gastrointestinal symptoms, headache, flushing, and liver damage.

Drinking even a small amount of alcohol while taking an antibiotic called Flagyl (metronidazole) can cause a severe reaction, making you extremely sick with nausea and vomiting. You will want to avoid alcohol for three days before you start and after you stop Flagyl.

Other antibiotics that should not be mixed with alcohol include:

Antidepressants

In addition to worsening the side effects of antidepressant medications, mixing these drugs with alcohol can also make symptoms of depression worse.

If you are being treated for depression or another mental health condition such as bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive- disorder, you may need to limit or completely avoid alcohol if you take one or more of the following medications:

Anti-Nausea Medications

Medications that are prescribed to treat nausea can make you feel drowsy, dizzy, and may impair your motor control—symptoms that can also be caused by alcohol.

Some drugs (often antihistamines) used to prevent and treat motion sickness can also be purchased over-the-counter.

If you mix any type of anti-nausea drug with alcohol, the side effects of the medication can become more intense.

Avoid combining alcoholic beverages with medications used to treat nausea, such as:

  • Antivert
  • Atarax
  • Dramamine
  • Phenergan

Arthritis Medications

If you take medications for arthritis, it is important to know that mixing them with alcohol can increase your risk for stomach ulcers and bleeding in the stomach, as well as liver problems. 

You should avoid alcohol if you are taking medication to treat arthritis, including:

Blood Thinners

If you have a medical condition (such as atrial fibrillation) that puts you at risk for developing a blood clot, your doctor might prescribe medications to thin your blood (anticoagulants). While these drugs make it less likely your body will form blood clots, they also make you bleed more easily.

If you take a blood thinner, even an occasional drink can increase your risk of internal bleeding. Drinking often or heavily increases this risk and can undo the medication’s blood-thinning effects. If your body is forming blood clots, it increases your risk of having a stroke or a heart attack.

Your might not need to completely avoid alcohol if you are taking a blood thinner. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting your intake to no more than one or two occasional drinks if you are on anticoagulant therapy.

Your doctor might have a different recommendation for you. Be sure to talk to them before having a drink if you are taking an anticoagulant medication, such as:

Cholesterol Medications

Medications prescribed to lower cholesterol levels (statins) can cause flushing, itching, stomach bleeding, and liver damage. Combining these drugs with alcohol can make the side effects worse, especially if you have liver disease. 

Mild liver inflammation can occur in about 2% of people who take statins for a long time. While it typically gets better if they stop taking the medications, there has been concern that alcohol (which is metabolized by the liver) could potentially make liver inflammation worse.

Some research has found that alcohol does not appear to worsen liver inflammation in certain people who take medication for their cholesterol. A 2006 Harvard study found that moderate alcohol use did not have a significant negative effect on the livers of men taking statins after heart surgery.

That said, mixing alcohol and statins could still make the medication’s side effects more intense. You may want to limit your alcohol use if you are taking a cholesterol-lowering medication such as:

Cough Suppressants

As with cold and flu remedies, combining alcohol with medications used to treat a cough can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and motor impairment.

However, the effects of the mix can be serious—if not deadly—because some cough medicines contain alcohol.

One ingredient in some cough suppressants called dextromethorphan (DXM) can be especially dangerous because it can cause extreme sedation and respiratory depression. This combination can cause an overdose which may be fatal.

You should not drink alcohol if you are taking:

Diabetes Medications

If you have diabetes, drinking alcohol can affect your blood sugar levels. Drinking alcohol with the medications you take to manage your diabetes can have the same effect, and the mix can also cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, headache, rapid heartbeat, and sudden changes in your blood pressure.

You should not drink alcohol if you take medications to treat diabetes, including:

  • Glucophage
  • Micronase
  • Orinase

Heartburn Medications

Using alcohol with medications used to treat heartburn, both prescription and over-the-counter, can cause rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) and sudden changes in blood pressure. These drugs can also make the effects of alcohol more intense, leading to impaired judgment and sedation.

Use caution and consider limiting your alcohol intake if you take medications for heartburn, including:

High Blood Pressure Medications

Combining alcohol with high blood pressure (hypertension) medications can cause dizziness, fainting, drowsiness, and irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).

You should avoid drinking alcohol if you take medications to treat high blood pressure, such as:

Muscle Relaxants

If you have an injury or medical condition that causes pain or spasms in your muscles, you might be given medications to relax them. Muscle relaxants are commonly used to treat back and neck pain, as well as certain kinds of headaches.

Muscle relaxants and alcohol both suppress your central nervous system, which controls the functions of your heart, lungs, and brain.

Combining these medications with alcohol can cause serious side effects, including drowsiness, dizziness, slowed or impaired breathing, abnormal behavior, memory loss, impaired motor control, and seizures.

You should not drink alcohol if you take any of the following medications:

Narcotic Pain Medications

One of the deadliest combinations is alcohol and narcotic pain medications. On their own, narcotics can cause drowsiness, dizziness, slowed or impaired breathing, impaired motor control, abnormal behavior, and memory loss.

Mixing these medications with alcohol intensifies the side effects and increases the risk of a fatal overdose.

You should never mix alcohol with narcotics, including:

Prostate Medications

Having an alcoholic drink while you are taking medications to treat prostate conditions can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting.

Limit or avoid your alcohol consumption if you take any of the following prostate medications:

Over-the-Counter Pain Medications

The dangers of mixing alcohol with prescription drugs are well known. When you pick your prescription up at the pharmacy, chances are the label or package insert will come with a warning if it is not safe to consume alcohol while you are taking the medication.

However, even medications you don’t need a prescription for can be unsafe when mixed with alcohol.

For example, OTC painkillers (including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can cause a range of symptoms: from gastrointestinal upset, bleeding, and ulcers in the stomach, to a racing heart (tachycardia).

Taking OTC painkillers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) in high doses, or taking these medications regularly over a long period, has been associated with liver damage.

Both the short-term and long-term side effects and risks associated with taking OTC painkillers are intensified when you mix these drugs with alcohol.

If you are taking an OTC painkiller, be sure to read the label carefully. Some OTC pain relievers do not generally pose a major risk when small amounts are combined with occasional alcohol use.

However, serious interactions can occur between alcohol and other pain relievers—particularly if people have underlying medical conditions that change how their body metabolizes drugs and alcohol.

Be aware of your alcohol use and consult the drug’s label before taking any of the following: 

If you had an alcoholic beverage and are not sure if you should take an OTC pain reliever, you can ask your local pharmacist or primary care provider if it is safe to do so.

Sleep Aids

Medications used to treat insomnia or help you fall and stay asleep should never be mixed with alcohol. The sedating effect of these drugs can be increased by alcohol, leading to slowed or impaired breathing, impaired motor control, abnormal behavior, memory loss, and fainting.

In some cases, a fatal overdose can occur if sleep aids are mixed with alcohol because both substances affect the body’s central nervous system (which controls your breathing, heart rate, and brain function).

Do not consume alcohol if you are taking any of these medications to help you sleep:

A Word From Verywell

There are hundreds of prescription and over-the-counter medications that are not safe to mix with alcohol. The dangers of mixing alcohol with medications can range from increased side effects to potentially life-threatening symptoms, overdose, and death.

Always read the label and package insert of any medication you are taking, whether it has been prescribed by your doctor or purchased over-the-counter.

If you are not sure if it is safe to drink alcohol while you are taking medication, call your local pharmacy or talk to your doctor about the potential interactions. 

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Article Sources
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