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Mixing Alcohol with Prescriptions or Medicines

Mixing alcohol and medicines puts you at risk for dangerous reactions. Some medicines that you might never have suspected can react with alcohol, including many medications which can be purchased “over-the-counter” (without a prescription). Even some herbal remedies can have harmful effects when combined with alcohol.

Mixing Alcohol with Certain Medications Can:

  • Cause nausea and vomiting, headaches, drowsiness, lightheadedness, fainting, or loss of coordination
  • Make it difficult to concentrate or perform mechanical skills, and even more dangerous to drive
  • Lead to falls and serious injuries, especially among older people
  • Put you at risk for internal bleeding, heart problems, and difficulties in breathing
  • Make the medication less effective or even useless
  • Make the medication harmful or toxic to your body
  • Intensify the medicine’s side effects

The Risks

Medicines may have many ingredients. Some medications—including many popular painkillers and cough, cold, and allergy remedies—contain ingredients that can react with alcohol. Certain medicines may also contain up to 10% alcohol; cough syrup and laxatives may have some of the highest alcohol concentrations.

Women have a higher risk for problems than men. When a woman drinks, the alcohol in her bloodstream typically reaches a higher level than a man’s even if both are drinking the same amount. This is because women’s bodies generally have less water than men’s bodies. Because alcohol mixes with body water, the amount of alcohol is more concentrated in a woman’s body than in a man’s. As a result, women are more susceptible to alcohol-related damage to organs such as the liver.

Older people face greater risk of harmful alcohol-medication interactions. Aging slows the body’s ability to break down alcohol, so alcohol remains in a person’s system longer. Older people also are more likely to take a medication that interacts with alcohol—in fact, they often take more than one of these medications.

Timing is important. Alcohol and medicines can interact harmfully even if they are not taken at the same time.

How to Protect Yourself

  • Read the labels on your medicine bottles to find out exactly what ingredients it contains.
  • Talk with your pharmacist or health care provider to determine which medications interact harmfully with alcohol.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol if you are taking a medication and don’t know its effects.