In our society, alcohol can be ubiquitous and, in many circles, even taken for granted as a normal part of life. Thus, it can sometimes be easy for people to forget that alcohol is a drug.
Like any drug, it can be very dangerous when abused or used irresponsibly, but even at moderate levels, alcohol can carry some risks, especially when used in conjunction with other drugs, like prescription medication. When different drugs are taken together, they interact in often unexpected ways, and often intensify effects, sometimes creating dangerous situations.
For this reason, it is extremely important that anyone drinking alcohol make sure he or she is not taking any medication that might cause negative effects. However, a recent study by the National Institute of Health reveals this very risky practice is all too common.
The NIH study
According to the NIH report, published in the February 2015 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, around 41.5 percent of U.S. adults who drink use medications that may interact negatively with alcohol, which can include medication for depression, diabetes, and blood pressure. Dr. Rosalid Breslow, an epidemiologist for the NIH lead the study that surveyed 27,000 men and women between 1999 and 2010.
The surveys collected information about alcohol use alongside medications that have been shown to interact negatively with alcohol, assuming that people who take these medications regularly and also drink regularly may at times unknowingly consume alcohol in ways that will interact harmfully with their medications. Among those older than 65, that jumps up to 78 percent. Elderly persons are generally more likely to develop health problems, and are generally using more medications, and thus are at greater risk.
As people age, and their metabolism slows down, the ability to break down both alcohol and certain medications may decrease, "creating a much longer window for potential interactions," in the words of Breslow.
The risks of mixing medications and alcohol
Alcohol interacts with the body in very specific ways. When combined with prescription medication, alcohol can either neutralize or intensify the effects of another drug. Either one of these possibilities can sometimes put your health at great risk.
For example, alcohol increases blood pressure, so drinking while taking medication to lower blood pressure can make the drug useless. On the other hand, alcohol also has sedating effects, and so taking it alongside other sedatives, like sleeping pills or pain relief can cause too much sleepiness, to the life-threatening point of taking away your body's reflective activity related to breathing and a regular heart beat.
How to avoid these dangers
Here are a few more specific medications that may react negatively with alcohol:
Antidepressants - Both alcohol and certain types of antidepressants slow down the central nervous system, creating drowsy feelings and impairing thinking skills. Also, alcohol can often worsen symptoms of depression.
Birth control - Oral contraceptives cause alcohol to leave the body at a slower rate, so a woman taking it may get drunk at a faster rate.
Blood pressure - Drinking neutralizes the effects of beta-blockers, leaving you vulnerable to heart failure.
Cholesterol-lowering medications - Both statins and alcohol put strain on the liver, putting you at risk for liver failure if they are taking concurrently.
Diabetes medication - Alcohol can cause low blood-sugar levels, causing a diabetes treatment to become unpredictable.
The disturbing results of the recent NIH survey indicate that doctors and pharmacists need to do more to educate patients about how their drinking activity may need to change while on a certain medication. However, you also have a responsibility to speak openly with your health care providers to ensure you are aware of any risks drinking while on a particular medication may pose.