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Dangers Of Mixing Prescription Drugs With Alcohol

Authored by Granite Recovery Centers    Reviewed by James Gamache    Last Updated: August 27th, 2021


James Gamache Medical Reviewer
Jim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) and Licensed Masters Level Addictions Counselor (MLADC). He has been working in the field of mental health/addiction treatment since 1995. Jim earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services from Springfield College in 2000, and a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University in 2002. In 2002 Jim was hired by the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester holding the position of Clinical Case Manager. From 2004-2019, Jim was employed at WestBridge Inc. During his time at WestBridge, Jim held the following positions; Clinician, Team Leader, Director, & Chief Operations Officer. In 2019 Jim transitioned employment to GateHouse Treatment Center as the Clinical Director for 10 months. In October of 2020 Jim transitioned to Granite Recovery Centers and is currently serving as the Senior VP of Clinical Services and Quality Assurance.

Everyone’s seen commercials where prescription medication makers warn the audience not to consume alcohol when taking their medicines. This may seem like a simple liability warning, but it’s a message that everyone should pay attention to. Drinking alcohol while taking prescription medications is not only dangerous, but it can also be deadly. Knowing the things that you should be aware of can help keep you and your loved ones safe.

Prescription Meds Come With Warnings

Medications have ingredients in them that work on specific parts of the body. They could work on the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system, the central nervous system and any other part of the body. The medications do everything from helping our hearts run better to helping our skin heal or helping us breathe better. All of these medicines have complex ingredients inside of them that work together to repair and heal different organs and tissues. Those individual ingredients have been combined into a formula calculated to do a specific job in the body.

You’ll notice that those pharma commercials usually end with a massive dos and don’ts list that is very specific about what people should and shouldn’t do while taking the medication. That list usually includes medications people should avoid while taking it, and warnings frequently mention that people shouldn’t drink alcohol while taking their prescription.

There are certain medications that should never mix because combining them will change the way that those medicines work. They could be rendered useless, or they could become deadly. This is why when you go to get a prescription filled, you will get a list from the pharmacist or your doctor of all of the medications that could cause an interaction with your medicine. You will be told in no uncertain terms to avoid mixing those medications. To do so could be dangerous and even lethal.

Alcohol Isn’t Medicine

Alcohol is not a medicine; it is a substance that people take to feel relaxed, happy and laid-back. Alcohol has a definitive effect on the brain’s structure. When you drink alcohol, you start to feel good because of dopamine that is being released from the reward center of the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that manages your body’s ability to feel pleasure. Drinking alcohol also releases serotonin, another neurotransmitter that plays an active role in people feeling calm and relaxed.

Alcohol also works on a neurotransmitter called GABA. GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. As the levels of GABA are encased in the brain, the brain’s response mechanisms are lowered. This is the reason that people feel slowed down when they get drunk. They end up with slurred speech and arms and legs that move slowly, and they react to things a lot more sluggishly than they usually do.

People who end up consuming a lot of alcohol stumble about and can’t walk straight. This is because alcohol is now affecting the cerebellum, the part of the brain that manages coordination. Alcohol also affects the reticular activating system portion of the brain stem. This part of the brain controls consciousness, so once it’s affected by alcohol, people are more likely to blackout or lose consciousness.

Alcohol also blocks the hormone vasopressin. Vasopressin prevents your kidneys from eliminating too much fluid. By blocking this hormone, alcohol causes you to feel the need to go to the bathroom all the time. It also makes you dehydrated.

Effects of Alcohol on the Body and the Brain

When people drink too much, there are short-term and long-term results. In the short term, people end up feeling nauseous, blacking out, slowing their speech and having memory lapses.

In the long term, alcohol could have even more devastating effects on the body and the brain. It can cause the portion of the brain called the cerebellum to atrophy, meaning that it will shrink. Brain shrinkage leads to ataxia, a breakdown and degeneration of the nervous system. Once that happens, the effects are irreversible.

Alcohol also affects the part of the brain called the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that handles memory formation. When you drink too much alcohol, your ability to hold onto memories is reduced. Alcohol also affects the nerves on the outside of the brain as well as the nervous system. This can eventually lead to a loss of sensation in your feet and hands, a condition referred to as neuropathy.

As you can see, alcohol has a very profound effect on your body and your brain. Overuse can cause debilitating and irreversible health issues. Prescription medicine also affects your body and your brain. When you mix the two together, you get an interaction that can cause serious damage to your body.

Why Do People Mix Alcohol and Prescription Meds?

Drinking is practically a national pastime in the United States. People are allowed to legally drink from the age of 21, but many people drink earlier in high school and in college. While many people are able to keep their drinking under control, others aren’t. They may not technically be considered alcoholics, but many of them consume alcohol very frequently.

Many of those people take prescription medications for various reasons. Some non-opioid prescription medications are for things like asthma, diabetes or heart disease. Plenty of people take alcohol with their opioid prescriptions as well. Those opioids include Vicodin, oxycodone and hydrocodone. Whether individuals are taking opioids or non-opioid drugs, the results of mixing them with alcohol can be devastating. Some people mix their non-opioid medications with alcohol by accident while others do it intentionally.

Types of Medications That People Mix With Alcohol

The following are just a few of the types of medications that people mix with alcohol. These combinations can have very dangerous outcomes.

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants are medicines that are generally prescribed for people who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. People who have this disorder are prescribed medicines like Vyvanse, Adderall and Ritalin.

When taken as directed, these medicines can help people focus and concentrate by regulating the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. One major issue with prescription stimulants is that people who are prescribed these medicines often become addicted to them. They’re addicted to the rush that they get, and they eventually become dependent on the medicine’s ability to help them do things like stay up all night or work for hours on end.

Many people who are in this mode also abuse alcohol, creating a dangerous mix. Mixing a prescription stimulant with a sedative like alcohol can cause serious complications, including liver damage, problems concentrating, extreme drowsiness, a higher risk of heart damage or heart issues and dizziness.

Antidepressants

People take antidepressants to help them with issues like depression, anxiety and a wide range of other mental health issues. Antidepressants, also known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, work by increasing the brain’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.

SSRIs work by preventing the reabsorption of serotonin into neurons. This reabsorption process is called reuptake. Since the serotonin is not reabsorbed into neurons, it’s free to help transmission of messages between neurons, helping raise mood. The most frequently prescribed SSRIs include Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, Paxil and Lexapro. SSRIs are usually safe for most people to take, but they can cause issues in some people like abnormal heart rhythms when taken in certain doses. They also may cause serious drug interactions with other prescriptions or herbal medicines that are being taken.

When you mix antidepressants with alcohol, they may not be as effective. This is why many people who mix alcohol and antidepressants end up feeling even more sad, anxious and depressed. They may also have to deal with issues like their memory or thinking processes being inhibited or reduced. Some people feel extreme sleepiness or describe feeling like they’re heavily sedated.

Other types of antidepressants like MAOIs can cause damage to the heart when mixed with alcohol. This can result in issues like an increased risk of blood clots, high blood pressure or even a heart attack. Some of the side effects of mixing alcohol and antidepressants include liver damage, feeling even more hopeless or dealing with suicidal ideation, extreme drowsiness and a lack of motor control.

Opioids

Opioids are prescription painkillers that are prescribed to help people deal with moderate to severe pain, and they’re some of the most abused substances in the world. According to the CDC, an average of 91 people die every day because of opiate overdose.

When many people think of opioids, they think of heroin, but prescription opioids have many of the same properties as heroin because they’re made from the same substance. Prescription opioids include oxycodone, morphine, hydrocodone and codeine. These drugs can be extremely effective when taken as prescribed, but the potential for abuse is high. People become addicted to the euphoria and sedation that they receive from opioids, so they end up chasing the high. As the body becomes tolerant to the drug, the user needs more and more of it in order to get the same effects. After a while, their body becomes dependent on the drug, and they need it simply to live.

Some people who are addicted to prescription opioids and alcohol were never even prescribed the opioids. They simply wanted to get the intense high of using both, and they obtained the opioids illegally on the street.

When people drink alcohol and take prescription opioids at the same time, they exponentially increase the risk of overdose. The biggest danger of mixing the two is extremely depressed breathing. It doesn’t even have to be a huge amount of prescription drugs; a prescription dose of oxycodone mixed with anywhere from one to three drinks can make it extremely difficult to breathe. Most people who have suffered a fatal opioid overdose died because they were struggling with oxygen deprivation.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, routinely referred to as benzos, are fast-acting, anti-anxiety prescription medications that work on the body’s GABA receptors, helping people remain calm when they’re dealing with issues like panic attacks or anxiety. Benzos are even used to help people with seizure disorders like epilepsy.

The problem with taking benzos and alcohol is that alcohol also acts on the GABA receptors, increasing the intensity. The user may initially feel a sense of overwhelming calm, but this effect is dangerous because it often masks the signs of an overdose. Some of the side effects of someone who has mixed benzos and alcohol include difficulty breathing, unusual behavior, liver damage, drowsiness and impaired motor control.

How We Can Help

Treating an addiction to any substance is tough, but dealing with people who are struggling with multiple substances, such as using prescription meds and alcohol, is more complicated. A person may be addicted to one or both substances.

Assessment

When people come to Granite Recovery Centers for help treating an addiction, we look at their entire situation before setting up a plan. We determine what their specific issues are so that we can devise a plan that works with their addiction issues.

Detox

Detox is one of the most important parts of treating an addiction to alcohol and prescription meds. If the prescription medication in question is an opioid, the withdrawal symptoms are usually very difficult. The detox and withdrawal process for alcohol is equally as difficult. The physical and physiological symptoms are extremely difficult to manage, but with medically assisted treatment programs like those we offer at Granite Recovery Centers, we can help ease the transition. We provide medications that help shield our clients from the worst symptoms so that they’re able to rid the substances from their systems safely. Granite Recovery Centers provides medical detoxification for people who do not need immediate medical intervention, are not a danger to themselves, and are capable of self-evacuation in the event of an emergency.

Aftercare

Once our clients go through detox, they need to address the issues that got them mixed up with addiction in the first place. Whether they’ve gone through inpatient or outpatient treatment, we make sure that they have access to the kind of therapy they need via our aftercare program. This could range from cognitive behavioral therapy to family therapy or holistic therapies like yoga. Our goal is to help heal the whole person so that they can move forward with their lives without the crutch of prescription medication and alcohol addiction.

At Granite Recovery Centers, we want to help you create a brand-new and healed version of yourself. To get the help you need, contact a member of our staff today.

At Granite Recovery Centers, we want to provide accurate information about health and addiction so that our readers can make informed decisions.

We have credentialed medical doctors & clinicians who specialize in addiction treatment review the information on our website before it is published. We use credible sources such as government websites and journal articles when citing statistics or other medically related topics.