86 percent of adults in the U.S drink alcohol, and for most of them, alcohol consumption isn’t a problem. But about a quarter of adults report heavy alcohol use. That alone is cause for concern, and it’s even more so when someone is also taking prescription medications.
Combining alcohol with prescription pain meds can cause serious health problems and can even lead to death. In this article, we’ll take a look at why mixing alcohol with medication is so dangerous and how you or someone you love can get help before it’s too late.
The Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the central nervous systems. That may seem counter-intuitive because people often drink alcohol at parties and other social gatherings to “loosen up”.
Our liver can metabolize about one drink an hour. But even one drink can slow respiration and the body’s response times. That’s why drinking and driving are so dangerous. Consuming alcohol can also affect speech, thought, memory and movement, especially when someone drinks large amounts.
Alcohol can also affect our mental state and cause changes in our emotions, decreased inhibitions, impaired judgment, difficulty remembering things and confusion. Drinking more than our liver can process can lead to both short and long-term health problems. Binge drinking, for example, can cause alcohol poisoning which can be deadly. An average of six people dies of alcohol poisoning every day in the US.
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Slowed or irregular breathing
- Cyanosis, or blue-tinted skin
- Pale skin
- Low body temperature, or hypothermia
Binge drinking is a serious problem for millions of people. In fact, nearly 27 percent of adults reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month. About 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year. It’s the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States
If you or someone you love is drinking to excess, it’s important to recognize the signs of a potential problem.
Alcohol and Medications
Men and women with alcohol use disorders or alcoholism are 18 times more likely to abuse prescription drugs than people who don’t drink at all. Mixing alcohol with the medication of any kind can be dangerous, even deadly.
The combination can cause nausea and vomiting, headaches, drowsiness, fainting or loss of coordination. It also can put you at risk for internal bleeding and heart problems. More severe reactions can include alcohol poisoning, hallucinations, even death.
Alcohol can make a medication less effective or even useless. Conversely, it may make the medication toxic to your body. The classes of drugs most commonly abused and mixed with alcohol are:
Depressants – These include barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep medications. These drugs are prescribed to help with insomnia and anxiety. They also lower blood pressure and can cause respiratory distress and death when mixed with alcohol.
Opioids – These include codeine, hydrocodone, methadone, and oxycodone. Most people take these drugs to relieve pain. These drugs can slow or even stop breathing and slow the heart. When combined with alcohol, these drugs can lead to death.
Stimulants – These include amphetamines, which are commonly prescribed to treat obesity and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When mixed with alcohol, they can cause high blood pressure and heart attacks, seizures and strokes. This combination is especially dangerous because stimulants can actually prevent a person’s own body from saving itself. When you drink excessively, you often pass out. That’s the body’s way of stopping you from drinking even more. But if you take stimulants when you drink, you may not pass out and thus put yourself at risk for alcohol poisoning and death.
Here’s a list of commonly-used medications that interact with alcohol in ways that can affect your health.
Alcohol and Prescription Pain Meds
Pain medications fall into the category of drugs called opioids. Opioids include morphine, methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and codeine, as well as illegal drugs like heroin. 91 people die every day because of an opioid overdose, often caused by combining the drugs with alcohol.
Mixing prescription painkillers with alcohol increases their effects and the risk of overdose. One study found that combining even normal prescription doses of oxycodone with the equivalent of one to three drinks can lead to dangerously depressed breathing.
In fact, oxygen deprivation is the cause of overdose death among people struggling with opioid addiction. Basically, when you combine pain killers with alcohol, you might simply stop breathing.
Other side effects caused by mixing alcohol with opioids include:
- Slowed or difficult breathing
- Impaired motor control, leading to accidents
- Unusual behavior
- Memory problems or blackouts
- Liver damage
Alcohol can also change the performance of pain medication. In some cases, alcohol can negate its effectiveness. This can be dangerous, because the patient may then take more pills and drink more alcohol to try and achieve the “high” he’s seeking. He may not experience the immediate effects of an overdose until it’s too late.
It’s also important to consider the mental and emotional effects of combining alcohol with prescription pain meds. The mix can change a person’s thoughts and actions, making risky behavior a threat to their safety. The person is more likely to black out, vomit and/or engage in risky behaviors like drunk driving and unplanned, unprotected sex.
A person who mixes alcohol with prescriptions drugs may develop long-term health problems as a result. These include:
- Heart attacks
- Liver damage
- Liver failure
- Internal bleeding
- Brain damage
- Depression, anxiety or other mental health problems
Signs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Abusing two or more substances is referred to as polysubstance or cross-addiction. This type of addiction can develop in several ways. Perhaps the most common occurs when a patient with a history of alcohol abuse is given prescription pain medication for a legitimate purpose. For example, the patient may need pain meds following surgery.
However, because opioids stimulate the same area of the brain as alcohol does, the patient can easily develop an addiction to them. Additionally, abusing pain medication can trigger an alcoholic relapse.
It’s important to recognize the signs that someone is abusing alcohol and drugs because the combination can be deadly. Those symptoms can include:
Changes in behavior and mood. The person may become easily irritated, angry or depressed with no obvious cause.
Financial problems. The person may quickly exhaust his financial resources, as he needs to buy more and more of the medications and the alcohol. He may also suffer the financial consequences of his addiction, like attorneys fees and court costs.
Difficulty at work or the loss of a job. The person may have trouble functioning at work if he’s actively using. Or, he may experience withdrawal symptoms severe enough to affect his job performance.
Health problems. Heavy drinking combined with prescription pain medication can cause liver problems, including inflammation and scarring. The patient may develop an inflammation of the stomach lining, along with stomach and esophageal ulcers.
Neurological complications. Abusing drugs and opioids can affect the nervous system, causing numbness and pain in the hands and feet, disordered thinking and dementia.
If you or someone you love is abusing alcohol and prescription pain meds, it’s vitally important to seek treatment. We now know that the combination can be life-threatening. If you suspect someone is mixing drugs and alcohol, having an honest conversation is the first step.
There are a number of treatment options, including residential treatment. The patient is able to detox from both the alcohol and opioids under medical supervision. He might then live at the facility for a month or longer.
Outpatient treatment is also an option. Here, the patient lives at home but spends his days at a treatment facility.
Both options will combine substance abuse treatment and counseling with therapy, life, and coping skills development. The patient will learn how to manage stress, anxiety and past trauma in healthy ways that don’t involve alcohol or opioids.
This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the treatment of cross addictions. The patient may be able to stop drinking but still, need help managing pain. Medical experts will help develop a course of treatment that may involve supervised pain management until the medication is no longer needed.
Wrapping It Up
We’ve focused our discussion here on the dangers of mixing alcohol with prescription pain meds. It’s also important to be aware that other medications can interact with alcohol in dangerous ways.
Some over the counter cough medicines, for example, can contain alcohol. Some allergy medications contain an ingredient that can make you drowsy. Taking the medication with alcohol will increase the effectiveness of both. That can create serious health problems. If you or someone you love needs support dealing with addiction, we’re here to help. Please contact us with any questions you have or to schedule an appointment.