The dangers of mixing alcohol and prescription drugs are real, warns the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Actress Selma Blair was among the most recent celebrities to find this out, and her experience has underscored just how dangerous it can be to drink while on medication.
When Blair recently took her prescription medication with alcohol—a glass of wine, some outlets report—an outburst followed that ended with her being carried off a Delta Airlines flight and onto a stretcher so she could be rushed to a local hospital.
Later, in an exclusive statement to Vanity Fair, she apologized for the incident aboard the flight, which was returning to Los Angeles from Mexico, explaining that she had mixed alcohol with her prescription medication.
“I made a big mistake yesterday. After a lovely trip with my son and his dad, I mixed alcohol with medication, and that caused me to black out and led me to say and do things that I deeply regret,” Blair said.
She apologized to the flight’s crew and passengers and said she takes the incident seriously, concluding her statement with, “I am a flawed human being who makes mistakes and am filled with shame over this incident. I am truly very sorry.”
While it is not clear whether Blair took her medication shortly before or after consuming alcohol, or even while drinking her beverage, hers is a cautionary tale of what can happen when the two come together. In some cases, the mix is deadly.
The news of her drug-induced outburst trended on the internet, but she is hardly alone, and her story is familiar.
Whether knowingly or unknowingly, thousands of people are mixing alcohol and prescription drugs past and current studies show, putting themselves in grave danger, and sometimes the mix is fatal.
Data seem to support that people regularly combine alcohol and prescription drugs that are known to interact with the alcoholic beverages they drink.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced in January 2015 via news release that based on the results of a study it conducted, nearly 42 percent of US adults who drink also report using medications known to interact with alcohol.
It also reported that among those over 65 years of age who drink alcohol, nearly 78 percent report using alcohol-interactive medications.
Researchers analyzed their data from more than 26,000 adults ages 20 and older who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1999-2010). Survey participants were asked about their alcohol use in the past year and prescription drug use in the past month, NIH’s press release said.
Prescription drugs can be dangerous
Some people think prescribed medicines are safe to consume because doctors are required to clear them for use first before they are taken. But part of the problem of the overdose on medication epidemic has been pinned on the thousands of prescriptions that are written for drugs that become even more hazardous when they fall into the wrong hands.
Medications issued via prescription have a higher potential to be abused, putting users at a greater risk of overdose and addiction, experts say.
Prescription medicine abuse is part of the problem, which is defined as the use of medication without a prescription, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Access is easy as people share medicines they have been prescribed with others, which is dangerous as well.
NIDA says, “According to several national surveys, prescription medications, such as those used to treat pain, attention deficit disorders, and anxiety, are being abused at a rate second only to marijuana among illicit drug users.
“The consequences of this abuse have been steadily worsening, reflected in increased treatment admissions, emergency room visits, and overdose deaths.”
Opioid painkiller abuse
Also, according to NIDA, adults ages 18 to 25 are the biggest abusers of prescription opioid pain relievers, ADHD stimulants, and anti-anxiety drugs. Reasons for their use vary, from wanting to feel better to improving their concentration for studying. Some who took opioid medication overdosed.
“In 2014, more than 1,700 young adults died from prescription drug (mainly opioid) overdoses—more than [the people who] died from overdoses of any other drug, including heroin and cocaine combined—and many more needed emergency treatment,” NIDA reports.
Prescription drugs taken for recreational use include depressants, or sedatives, anti-depressants, stimulants and painkillers, such as opioids and morphine derivatives.
NIDA reminds that prescription drugs are just as dangerous as illicit drugs when abused, which is why they must be prescribed by a doctor. It reports that prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs are the most commonly abused substances by Americans age 14 and older, after marijuana and alcohol.
In March 2016, the CDC issued guidelines for prescribing addictive medications, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, to primary care physicians in an attempt to address the deadly prescription pain reliever epidemic in the US and reduce the amount of drugs being prescribed to treat chronic pain. Primary care physicians are believed to write nearly half of opiate prescriptions, reports USA Today, though they are not required to follow the CDC’s recommendations.
Alcohol and medicines: Timing matters
The NIAAA warns that the alcohol-medication interactions can still cause harm, even if prescription drugs and alcohol are not taken at the same time.
And with two-thirds of American adults over the age of 18 who drink alcohol at least occasionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the likelihood is great that some will drink an alcoholic beverage while the medication is still in their system.
Despite the known dangers, there are people who take the risk anyway at their own peril. Consumers are advised to be careful when taking over-the-counter medications, too.
George Koob, MD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), warns in the NIH’s news release about alcohol-medication interactions that, “Combining alcohol with medications often carries the potential for serious health risks.”
He also said, “Based on this study, many individuals may be mixing alcohol with interactive medications and they should be aware of the possible harms.”
Risks increase with age
The dangers of mixing alcohol and prescription drugs only increase with age, which also raises the chances that more people will have interactions after drinking while on medication. WebMd says alcohol interactions are a “significant and increasing danger” because the use of prescription and non-prescription drugs is so widespread, and because Americans across age groups manage chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol, with medications, a practice that is expected to increase as they age.
“Because the incidence of chronic conditions increases with age, older Americans are especially likely to take prescription medications—often as many as 10 per day—many of which likely react adversely with alcohol.
“As the population ages, the problems associated with mixing alcohol and medications are certain to increase,” WebMd says.
According to NIDA, people who are older are at a higher risk of alcohol-medication interactions because as a person ages, their body’s ability to metabolize alcohol slows down, causing it to stay in their system longer.
Why are interactions so dangerous?
The consequences of mixing alcohol and prescription drugs are unpredictable, as everyone’s body chemistry, drug and alcohol history, as well as medical history differ. But in most cases, they are unfavorable.
Some medications have more than one ingredient that can react with alcohol and bring illness. Other medications have alcohol in them, further increasing the potential for a toxic outcome. NIDA reports that certain medicines contain up to 10 percent of alcohol. Cough syrup and laxatives may have some of the highest alcohol concentrations.
Depressants, such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan, which are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders, slow the functioning of the human brain and depress the central nervous system. When coupled with alcohol, the combination is toxic since alcohol is a depressant as well.
The website AlcoholRehab reports that the calming effects of depressants are pleasurable to the brain, and that’s one of the reasons users abuse them, which can result in an addiction.
Mixing alcohol with prescription drugs that fall into the stimulant category, such as caffeine and Adderall, puts the user at risk of feeling alert and in control of their senses when they are not. The stimulants mask the effects of alcohol, which can make people drink more alcohol than they should, and the result is alcohol poisoning.
Monitor your medication
If you are taking medication, be sure to read the label to find out what ingredients are in the medicine you consume. If you are not sure about what’s in it or how it might interact with alcohol, food, or other medications you are taking, ask your doctor or a pharmacist.
This also pertains to popular painkillers as well as cough, cold and allergy medicines and antibiotics. People who take medication are also advised that alcohol interactions may decrease a medication’s effectiveness or cancel out their usefulness altogether.
To see the commonly used medicines that interact with alcohol, click here.
The NIAAA reports that mixing alcohol and medication, even herbal ones, can cause sleepiness, drowsiness or lightheadedness. Other problems that may result from mixing the two are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Blood pressure changes
- Abnormal behavior
- Loss of coordination
WebMd also lists that mixing alcohol and medications can increase the risk of complications, among them:
- Liver damage
- Heart damage
- Internal bleeding
- Impaired breathing
Alcohol and prescription drugs: Will addiction follow?
Over time, abusing prescription medication, alcohol, or both at the same time can result in addiction. Excessive drinking can put you at risk of developing an alcohol use disorder along with other health and safety problems, says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Prescription drug addiction also puts you in harm’s way, as the number of opioid overdose deaths in recent years illustrates.
Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental deaths in the US, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014, according to the CDC. Opioid addiction is behind the epidemic, it reports, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014.
According to SAMHSA’s data in this report, of the 21.5 million Americans aged 12 and older who had a substance use disorder in 2014, 1.9 million had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain medication, and 586,000 had a substance use disorder involving heroin.
Addiction to alcohol, pain medication or both could result from mixing drugs and alcohol. Selma Blair was fortunate that she got the help she needed to recover from her admitted mistake of mixing alcohol and prescription drugs. However, not everyone will get that chance.
If you, or a loved one, are suffering from alcohol and prescription drug substance abuse and/or addiction, now is the time to call for help. Treatment is recommended because it provides detoxification, therapy, counseling and continuing drug education.
Our Recovery Hub specialists are standing by 24-7, waiting to help you find the program that is right for you. Call 1-844-318-7500 today.