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Article Summary

Women, Alcohol and Other Drugs

It can be dangerous to drink if you take other drugs at the same time or close together. This includes prescription medications, medications you can buy at the pharmacy without a prescription, and illegal drugs.

The effects of combining alcohol with medications can depend on various factors, including:

  • your age
  • your body weight and type
  • your general health
  • how much you have drunk and the dose of medication you have taken
  • how much food you have eaten
  • how much you have slept
  • your level of tolerance to the effects of alcohol and your medication.

Always check with your pharmacist or doctor first. Find out how safe it is to drink when you take any other drugs. Do not stop your medication suddenly, even just for the weekend, because:

  • there will still be medication in your system, which may interact with the alcohol
  • you risk a return of any symptoms that the medication is treating.

When you start a new medication or change the dose, it is usually best not to drink. If you do, the results can be unpredictable, and the alcohol may make your symptoms and/or side-effects worse. Once you have been on the medication for a while, check with your doctor to see if a glass or two of alcohol is OK.

Drugs that increase the effect of alcohol

All psychiatric medications and some pain medications work in the brain. Many of these medications sedate (slow down) your mind and body. This is also something that alcohol does. For this reason, combining alcohol with these sedative medications will likely increase side-effects. In some cases, the combination can be very dangerous. It can:

  • make one drink have the effect of two or three drinks or, with some sedative medications, even more
  • cause difficulty with breathing
  • slow your thinking and make it hard to concentrate
  • make you lose consciousness (pass out) or even die.

Even if the combination seems only to make you slightly drowsy, do not drive or operate heavy machinery, because you may be impaired.

Sedative Drug Names

  • Anticonvulsants (anti-seizure medications). These medications can be used to treat seizure disorders and/or bipolar disorder. Examples are Epival, Tegretol and Neurontin. If you combine these medications with alcohol, you will probably feel drowsy and possibly nauseous. Also, alcohol (especially alcohol withdrawal) can make you more likely to have a seizure.
  • Antihistamines. These drugs are often taken for allergies or cold symptoms. Examples are Benadryl and Contac-C. Another antihistamine, often taken for nausea, is Gravol. Check with your doctor or pharmacist about whether you can drink at all when you're taking antihistamines.
  • Barbiturates. These are very powerful drugs, and they can be dangerous. They are rarely prescribed any more, with the exception of the butalbital (in Fiorinal capsules) and phenobarbital. Never drink alcohol and take barbiturates.
  • Benzodiazepines. Examples of these drugs that are commonly prescribed are lorazepam (Ativan), clonazepam (Rivotril) and diazepam (Valium). It's very important to drink nothing or very, very little if you're taking any of these medications—check with your doctor.
  • Opioid pain medications. You can get these medications by prescription (examples are Tylenol 3s, morphine and OxyContin) or over the counter from the pharmacist (examples are Tylenol 1s and 222s). Combining these medications with alcohol adds to the effect. This will make you drowsy, and can also lead to dizziness, confusion, slowed breathing, and even overdose and death. Check with your doctor or pharmacist about whether you can drink at all when you're taking opioids. These medications should normally be used only for a short time. If you are on them for longer than a few weeks, ask your doctor about other medications or alternative pain treatments, such as physiotherapy.

Drugs that have other negative effects when taken with alcohol

  • Antidepressants. These drugs are usually (but not always) prescribed to relieve depression. They include SSRIs (examples are fluoxetine [Prozac], paroxetine [Paxil] and citalopram [Celexa]), and others such as venlafaxine (Effexor) and mirtazapine (Remeron). In the first few weeks on an antidepressant, alcohol may make your symptoms of depression or anxiety worse, and you may have increased side-effects. Once you are feeling well, one or two drinks should be OK—but remember that one drink will have the effect of two or maybe three drinks.
  • Antipsychotics. These drugs are used to treat psychosis or other psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder or severe anxiety. Examples are Risperdal, Zyprexa and Seroquel. Combining antipsychotics with alcohol may cause drowsiness, increase side-effects or symptoms, and/or make you less co-ordinated or cause other movement problems.
  • Antibiotics. These drugs are used to fight infections. Examples are penicillin and tetracycline. Some antibiotics don't work as well when combined with alcohol, or the combination can cause nausea or upset stomach. One antibiotic in particular, metronidazole (Flagyl), can cause a potentially severe reaction when combined with alcohol; you can get a headache and become flushed, sweaty, nauseous and very sick. This interaction can happen for up to three days after you finish the medication.
  • Non-opioid pain medications. You can buy some pain medications, such as ASA (aspirin) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), without a prescription. Combining alcohol with these medications can damage your stomach lining, which can cause stomach bleeding. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can cause liver problems when taken with alcohol—sometimes even when taken the next day for a hangover.

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