Drinking on Prescription Drugs

Most Americans enjoy an alcoholic drink here and there. About 70 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 or older had an alcoholic drink in the past year, according to a 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Over half of Americans also take prescription drugs.

Mixing prescription or over-the-counter drugs with alcohol, however, can be dangerous to our health. Not only can it result in fatal overdoses but it can also cause long-term, debilitating damage to organs and other health systems. To understand this public health issue, we conducted a preliminary survey of 393 people about the medications they commonly mixed with alcohol, and then we surveyed 1,052 people who had combined the most common medications and alcohol. In this research, we examine how and why survey participants drink and take medication at the same time and look at their perceived risks. Continue reading to see why so many Americans mix medications and alcohol and what could be done about it in the future.

Over-the-Counter Cocktails

Mixing medication with alcohol can be unpleasant, if not harmful. Side effects such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, and even loss of consciousness are all possibilities. But even so, a surprising number of people have mixed over-the-counter drugs with alcohol. Over 17 million people have a relationship with alcohol that can be classified as a medical disorder. This dependence isn't suspended when taking medication, resulting in many cases of substance mixing. In fact, our research indicates that most people, 57 percent of women and 54 percent of men, mixed over-the-counter pain medication with alcohol. This can inform how healthcare professionals should talk about over-the-counter medications with their patients – especially those used for reducing pain.

dangerous mix alcohol rx

Women also commonly mixed over-the-counter allergy medicine and antidepressants with alcohol. Meanwhile, men tended to mix their drinks with opioid prescriptions, as well as cough and cold medicines––such as Robitussin and Mucinex.

Mixed Perceptions

We've established that mixing alcohol with medications can be dangerous, but to more deeply examine this issue, we surveyed 1,052 people about how risky they perceived this behavior to be. Well over half of those who were warned about substance risks by pharmacists and doctors believed mixing alcohol with over-the-counter pain medication, allergy medication, or cough and cold medicines was dangerous. That was also the case for prescription drugs like antibiotics, antidepressants, and opioids. In fact, nearly 82 percent believed mixing opioid pain medication with alcohol was dangerous.

risk mixing alcohol prescription drugs

However, about 30 percent of people not informed by medical professionals perceived antibiotics mixed with alcohol to be safe, compared to roughly 9 percent of those who were briefed by doctors or pharmacists. Meanwhile, around 30 percent of those briefed by their physicians said over-the-counter pain medication mixed with alcohol was safe, compared to nearly 34 percent with their own perceptions.

Briefs and Beliefs

Our survey sample's perceptions of drug and alcohol risks suggest there's room to improve awareness. But can a simple briefing from medical professionals do the trick?

risks otc meds alcohol

Perceptions among those who received information from medical professionals and those who did not also varied for over-the-counter pain medication, the medication most commonly combined with alcohol. Seventy-five percent of those briefed by doctors or pharmacists said mixing ibuprofen with alcohol was dangerous, compared to nearly 55 percent of respondents not briefed. Similarly, almost 67 percent of those briefed by health care professionals believed a naproxen-and-alcohol combination was dangerous, compared to less than 42 percent of others (naproxen is an anti-inflammatory painkiller).

Mixed Motivations

If there are serious risks associated with mixing medication and alcohol, why do so many Americans still do it?

Some mix alcohol and medication to cope with stress and anxiety, while others may need to get over their symptoms during an alcohol-related event. However, about 37 percent of people surveyed said they mixed these substances because of their desire to drink, despite their use of medicines. The second most common reason was that survey participants mixed drugs and alcohol by accident.

reasons combine alcohol drugs

We also previously established that a large percentage of individuals viewed mixing painkillers and alcohol as dangerous. Yet, according to our data, people mostly mixed these two in hopes of overcoming a hangover. This is important for health care professionals working to stop drug- and alcohol-related overdoses – the motivation for mixing these substances among the general population is undoubtedly important.

Dangerous Interactions

While some individuals use alcohol and medication to cope with stress, anxiety, or hangovers, they could actually be making themselves sick. When consumed with alcohol, over-the-counter and prescription drugs can cause people to lose their coordination, become sleepy, act strangely, or vomit. There are also long-term effects, like liver damage and internal bleeding.

most common mix drugs alcohol

We surveyed individuals about what they experienced when combining different medications with alcohol. Almost 9 percent of all respondents said they received emergency medical care because they combined alcohol with medication. Many also reported experiencing a rapid increase in intoxication, while the No. 1 reported side effect was sleepiness. Nearly 31 percent of those who mixed opioid pain medication with alcohol – a very dangerous combination – said that they felt sedated.

Medications of Choice

Many people have combined medication with alcohol, but which mixtures are they most frequently using? About 52 percent of respondents combined medication with alcohol a couple of times a year, while around 17 percent of people combined more than once a week. About 21 percent of respondents said they mixed over-the-counter pain medication with alcohol more than once a week. Meanwhile, antibiotics were the least likely to be combined with alcohol, with 68 percent of respondents saying they only did this a couple of times a year.

frequency mix alcohol meds

Men were more likely than women to combine alcohol and medication more than once a week, but generally speaking, responses show similar substance-combining frequency habits in both gender.

Conclusion

Mixing medication and alcohol comes with serious risks – and it's extremely important to understand the dangers. Our findings suggest a significant percentage of people do know about the risks of mixing medication with alcohol, but their perceptions of danger somewhat differ to what doctors and pharmacists say. Our results also indicate that alcohol is a significant part of many people's social lives, and the perceived dangers of drinking with medication are perhaps not enough to stop this behavior. This research is key to understanding how best to address American health and safety, especially in a nation where, as earlier mentioned, over half the population consumes prescription drugs.

If you or someone you love is suffering from alcohol addiction, know you're not alone. At Alcohol.org, we do our best to help fight addiction. We offer ressources on alcoholism and help you connect with the best treatment centers and services across the U.S. Our goal is to give you or your loved ones much-needed support. Visit us at Alcohol.org to learn more.

Methodology

For this project, we ran a preliminary survey of 393 respondents to research the medications most commonly combined with alcohol. Next, we surveyed 1,052 people who had combined one of the six most common types of medication and alcohol regarding their thoughts and experiences. Of these respondents, 186 people combined over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication with alcohol; 175 used antibiotics and alcohol; 174 people combined OTC cough and cold medication with alcohol; 173 respondents used each antidepressants and OTC allergy medication with alcohol; and 171 respondents combined opioid pain medication with alcohol. 554 of the respondents identified as men, and 497 identified as women. The respondents ranged in age from 18 to 82 years old. The average age was 36.1 with a standard deviation of 10.8. No statistical testing was performed for this project. The data rely on self-reporting by the respondents. Issues with this method can include selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration, among others.

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