For the majority of the population, prescription drugs of some type are a part of regular health maintenance routines. This can include medications such as antibiotics, which may only need to be taken for a limited period of time, but it can also include drugs that are necessary over the course of a lifetime. This also means that interactions with other chemicals are likely, although the severity and the effects can vary based on the substances involved.
Although patients can often be quite informed about dosage protocols and the side effects of the actual drug, they are not always as aware of the effects that medications can produce when alcohol is consumed as well. Dangers from increased health risk factors to mortality can be the result, so it is always wise to ask physicians and pharmacists about the possibility of these interactions.
It is generally wise to avoid alcohol altogether when taking prescription drugs, since the ethanol can inhibit the enzymatic reactions that are necessary for the medicine to have a positive effect in the body. At worst, this results in the drug having no effect, and the individual will still need to re-address the health need. Further, as both alcohol and the chemicals in drugs are processed in the liver, drinking while taking prescriptions can put undue strain on the organ.
Some Common Drugs and Interactions
One thing that many people are unaware of is that some prescription and over the counter drugs are actually dosed at a just below toxic level. This includes common NSAIDs, including prescription derivatives of aspirin. Depending upon dosage strength and the amount of alcohol that is consumed, the resulting interactions can lead to the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Heart arrhythmias
It should also be noted that many NSAIDs work to reduce pain by thinning the blood to reduce pressure buildup in the vessels. Alcohol is also a blood thinner, so the combination can also lead to excessive bleeding and bruising, which may result in further complications. These side effects are also common with blood thinners such as warfarin and Coumadin. However, with prescription drugs that are specifically targeting blood viscosity in order to regulate blood pressure, the consumption of alcohol can also influence this internal balance. Some of the common side effects with alcohol and blood thinners include:
- Blurred vision
- Sudden headaches
- Nose bleeds
Another common prescription medication that should include avoiding alcohol is any type of estrogen based birth control pill. Although the side effects may not be immediately noticeable, the combination of alcohol with this hormone can lead to strokes, high blood pressure, and a higher risk factor for ovarian and breast cancer. This is likely due to the manner in which alcohol can disrupt proper cell replication, which may be further compromised by the higher levels of estrogen in the system.
Extreme Danger Interactions
For some classes of drugs, the impact of alcohol with the prescription can have devastating consequences. Opiates become incredibly dangerous drugs when they are combined with drinking. This is due to several mechanisms, which are both dependent on the actions of both chemicals, but also on the specific action of an oral opiate compound.
Regardless of the formulation, oral opiates are designed to release in the body over time. This ensures that the pain receptors are appropriately blocked, without an excess of the opiate impacting nerves in the autonomic nervous system. However, when alcohol is consumed, it causes the opiates to be released all at once, which means that along with binding to pain receptors, they are also binding to nerves that regulate breathing, the heart, and even the brain.
The impact of this interaction is frequently swift, and can result in:
- Trouble breathing
Part of the reason alcohol and opiates are such a poor combination is also related to how drinking impacts several other classes of drugs.
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Any benzos
- Sedative drugs such as Ambien
- Some sedative antipsychotics such as thorazine and Haldol
All of these classes of prescription medications depress some part of the nervous system. Since alcohol is also a depressant, it can heighten the positive effects of the drugs to the point where it becomes a detriment. Thus, any drugs that already have a warning label which states that it may cause drowsiness or disorientation should never be combined with alcohol, as this can lead to the following results:
- Temporary memory loss
- Sleep walking, eating, even driving
- Severe depression of the autonomic nervous system
- Trouble breathing
- Lowered heart rate
As biologics become more prominent in the pharmaceutical field, they also open up new questions about how these agents will impact the body, and how they will interact with other substances. Drugs such as Humira and Enbrel are widely used to treat conditions including:
- Diabetic nerve pain
- Some forms of psoriasis
These drugs include precursors to organic substances that inhibit the inflammatory reaction within the body, and thus relieve the symptoms of the condition. However, combining alcohol with these prescriptions can generate several risks.
The most manifest one is that alcohol can negate the action of the drug. While the biologics are acting to reduce inflammation, alcohol increases inflammation due to its irritant effect on cells but also due to changes in circulation and water retention from the monohydrate. This can result in a negative cascade effect that actually worsens the symptoms of the condition.
Another important factor to consider is that biologics can lower immune response, but can also impact the way electrical signals are interpreted by the brain. In regards to risk for infection, alcohol consumption heightens this as well, since it also negatively impacts immune function. However, there is also a higher risk for patients who take biologics to become dependent on alcohol if they drink while taking the prescription drug, and this is likely due to the changes in brain activity and habit forming.