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The Issues of Mixing Alcohol & OxyContin

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so when a person drinks, certain bodily functions like heart rate and blood pressure, slow. A person's body temperature also drops, and levels of serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are elevated, leaving a person feeling happy, relaxed, and potentially sluggish and slow to react. Memory and thinking abilities are impaired, and a person may act in a way that they normally wouldn't, often becoming more social, less inhibited, and more likely to make poor choices that may lead to hazardous or risky behaviors.

OxyContin (oxycodone) is an opioid drug that interacts with opioid receptors in the brain. This helps to block pain sensations, promotes relaxation, and enhances pleasure by impacting brain chemistry. OxyContin also acts as a central nervous system depressant, slowing down respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate while lowering body temperature – much like alcohol.

Since both of these substances have mind-altering effects and both are central nervous system depressants, they serve to exacerbate their side effects and possible risk factors associated. The FDA places warnings in the labeling information for OxyContin advising people to avoid alcohol while taking the drug for risk of dangerous complications and negative interactions. Alcohol and OxyContin should not be combined.

Short-Term Side Effects of Combining an Opiate with Alcohol

When a person mixes alcohol with OxyContin or other another opioid drug, one of the most dangerous side effects is the way it slows down a person's breathing. Respiration rates can be lowered to dangerous levels, and individuals may struggle to breath. Alcohol can also increase the sedative effects of opiates, making a person feel drowsy or have trouble staying awake or conscious. Body temperature can drop, and a person may appear bluish in color and be cold to the touch. Heart rate and blood pressure can become irregular, and an individual is likely to be nauseous and vomit. These are all signs of a potential overdose, which is the biggest concern when mixing these two substances.

Over half of the more than 30,000 opioid overdose fatalities in 2015 involved a prescription opioid medication, such as OxyContin, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes. Psychiatric Times reports that in 2010 alcohol was involved in 18.5 percent of all opioid-related emergency department (ED) visits and 22.1 percent of all opioid overdose deaths. The Pain News Network publishes that alcohol is thought to be involved in 15 percent of all drug overdose deaths.

OxyContin comes in a time-release formulation, which can mean that a person may ingest it and then drink alcohol, and the effects can be delayed. Intoxication and toxic side effects may come upon a person suddenly and without warning. If a person chews, or otherwise bypasses the time-release formulation of OxyContin by crushing and then snorting it, smoking, or injecting the drug, the entire dosage enters into the bloodstream at once, taking rapid effect and heightening the risk for overdose.

The mixture of OxyContin and alcohol can be unpredictable and may lead to unintentional and fatal overdose. The American Association of Anesthesiologists warns that even just taking one oxycodone tablet and drinking a moderate amount of alcohol can be enough to slow or stop a person's breathing, potentially resulting in death.

While naloxone (Narcan) is often useful in reversing an opioid overdose, it may not be as effective for alcohol poisoning. When multiple substances are involved, the potential complications and negative outcomes of an overdose increase.

The combination of alcohol and OxyContin can inhibit a person's coordination and motor skills, making them more prone to falling down, becoming injured, or getting into an accident. A person's thought processes and ability to make rational decisions are also impaired by both alcohol and OxyContin use, which can result in a person participating in potentially dangerous behaviors, such as risky sexual encounters. Unsafe sex can increase the odds for contracting an infectious or sexually transmitted disease. Intoxication from either alcohol or OxyContin can also make a person more liable to fall victim to, or to perpetuate, a crime.

Combining alcohol and OxyContin can lead to wide range of both short-term and long-term physical and emotional side effects, not to mention the additional social and behavioral ramifications associated with their abuse.

Concerns of Mixing Alcohol with Other Opiates

Long-Term Health Risks of Mixing Opioids and Alcohol

OxyContin is considered to be a highly addictive substance. It makes changes to brain chemistry that take time and abstinence from the drug to reverse. A person can become tolerant and then physically dependent on OxyContin, even when taking the medication as directed and out of medical necessity. For this reason, it is not recommended to take OxyContin for an extended period of time.

Alcohol is also an addictive substance, and when these two substances are combined, the risk for addiction to each goes up exponentially. Consuming alcohol while taking OxyContin raises the odds for suffering from life-threatening respiratory depression, and it can also accelerate the timeline of dependence. Physical dependence on both alcohol and OxyContin can result in difficult withdrawal symptoms when the substances wear off. Cravings and physical dependence are often signs of addiction.

Addiction is a disease impacting brain chemistry that occurs when a person can no longer control their drug and/or alcohol use. Compulsive drug use behaviors are common, and a person battling addiction will often spend the majority of their time using drugs, trying to figure out how to get them, and recovering from the side effects of drug intoxication. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) publishes that over 20 million Americans battled addiction in 2016, approximately 75 percent of which struggled with alcohol abuse while over 2 million people battled an opioid use disorder.

Long-term alcohol use can damage the liver, causing liver disease, such as fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis. Gastrointestinal issues, including pancreatitis and gastritis, can also be side effects of excessive drinking as can several types of cancer and cardiovascular complications, such as myocardial infarction, atrial defibrillation, alcoholic cardiomyopathy, and hypertension. Prolonged opioid abuse can lead to respiratory infections, constipation, liver and kidney damage, sexual dysfunction, and infections in the lining of the heart. Both alcohol and opioid abuse can be involved with sleep difficulties and psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety.

Mixing OxyContin with alcohol compounds the potential side effects and complications of each substance.

Specialized Treatment Programs for OxyContin and Alcohol Abuse

When a person is physically dependent on either alcohol or OxyContin, or both, a medical detox program is needed to allow the drugs to process out of the body in a safe, stable, and medically monitored environment. Withdrawal symptoms can be significant and include both physical and emotional symptoms, such as:

  • Nausea, stomach pain and cramps, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Headaches and blurred vision
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Tremors and muscle aches
  • Mental confusion and difficulties concentrating
  • Insomnia and sleep disturbances
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Sweating, shivering, and goosebumps
  • Runny nose, yawning, and watery eyes
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Dilated pupils
  • Irregular blood pressure and heart rate

Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening in the case of delirium tremens (DTs), which can include hallucinations, severe mental confusion, fever, and seizures. When two or more substances are combined, such as alcohol and OxyContin, withdrawal can be more unpredictable, and medications are often needed to manage difficult withdrawal symptoms. Trained health providers work carefully to minimize withdrawal symptoms while limiting complications between treatment medications and the substances of abuse.

Opioids and alcohol are two substances that should not be stopped "cold turkey" due to the associated withdrawal symptoms. Medical and mental health professionals on staff at a medical detox program will monitor vital signs and help a person to become physically stable before entering into a comprehensive addiction treatment program.

When polysubstance abuse or co-occurring disorders are present, a residential addiction treatment program is optimal, as it can provide 24/7 encouragement, structure, care, and support. Individuals are able to focus fully on recovery and their overall health and wellbeing in a comprehensive inpatient addiction treatment program. A specialized addiction treatment program uses therapy, counseling, support groups, holistic measures, and medications to boost overall wellness and sustained recovery.