Risky Cocktail: Many Americans May Mix Alcohol with Medications

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More than 40 percent of Americans who drink alcohol also take medications that may interact with their booze, a new study finds.

Medications ranging from sleeping pills to blood pressure drugs can cause problems when taken with alcohol, such as nausea, headaches, loss of coordination, internal bleeding, heart problems and difficulties in breathing, said study co-author Rosalind Breslow, an epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In the study, Breslow and her colleagues looked at the results of surveys from nearly 27,000 men and women ages 20 and over that were conducted between 1999 and 2010. The participants reported how much alcohol they drank during the past year, and which medications they used over the past month. The researchers focused on drugs that produce side effects when combined with alcohol. [How 8 Common Medications Interact with Alcohol]

The results showed that mixing alcohol and medications that interact with it may be common — 41.5 percent of people who reported drinking said they had taken one or more of the risky medications, according to the study, published today (Jan. 16) in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"The data don't tell us exactly how many people in that 41.5 percent actually drink and take their medications within a similar time frame, or how often they do so," Breslow said. "However, if someone drinks regularly and takes medications regularly, the likelihood of taking them within a similar time frame is pretty high."

The researchers found greater risks among older people. Almost 78 percent of people ages 65 and over reported both drinking and taking such medications.

"People develop more chronic diseases as they age," Breslow said, "so older people are more likely to be taking medications, many of which can interact harmfully with alcohol."

Moreover, mixing alcohol and medicine could be particularly concerning among older people, Breslow said. 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," she said. The main types of drugs that people reported using in the survey were blood pressure medications, sleeping pills, pain medications and muscle relaxers, medications for diabetes and cholesterol, and antidepressants and antipsychotics.

Mixing alcohol with these medications can counteract their effects, or strengthen them, said co-author Aaron White, a neuroscientist at the NIH.

For example, "Alcohol can increase blood pressure, which could be counterproductive if one is taking medications to control blood pressure," White said. "Mixing diuretic medications with alcohol, which is also a diuretic, could contribute to dehydration. For people taking medications for diabetes, drinking alcohol can cause blood sugar to drop too low, White said.

The consequences can even be life-threatening, White said. "Mixing alcohol and other sedatives, like sleeping pills or narcotic pain medications, can cause sleepiness, problems with coordination and potentially suppress brain stem areas tasked with controlling vital reflexes like breathing, heart rate and gagging to clear the airway."

About 70 percent of adults in the United States drink alcohol, and nearly 25 percent report they have engaged in binge drinking in the past month, according to national surveys.

Breslow suggested that people, particularly the elderly, ask their doctor or pharmacist whether they should avoid alcohol while taking the medications they are prescribed.

Email Bahar Gholipour. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.