If we’re being honest, many of us are probably guilty of ignoring warning labels at one time or another, buying into the belief that we’re smart enough and capable enough to assess a truly risky situation. Then, too, there’s the assumption that warning labels might be overly cautious.
Either way, it’s not uncommon for people to shrug off the warning stickers on prescription meds. You know, the ones that say things like, “Do not drink alcoholic beverages while taking this medicine.”
It can be tempting to think it’s an idle precaution or mere suggestion, especially when you’re craving a cocktail at the end of a long day. But the truth is, mixing medications — even over-the-counter ones — with alcohol is more dangerous than you might think. And it can even be deadly.
Simply put: Alcohol and drugs don’t mix well.
For starters, that glass of Pinot can render your medication ineffective. “Alcohol interacts with as many as 150 medications and can cause them not to work effectively — their effects may become weaker, stronger, toxic, or have no benefit at all,” according to the National Council on Patient Information and Education (NCPIE).
When parents mix pills and Pinot
For parents, the trend of unwinding with a regular evening glass of wine or cocktail can have a negative impact on both their own health and their children. “Our world has changed tremendously in the last 10 years as far as drugs and alcohol are concerned,” says psychologist Howard Samuels, CEO of The Hills Treatment Center.
Oftentimes, Samuels says, he sees patients who mix medication and alcohol to avoid dealing with stress and emotions. Not only is this a dangerous practice for their own health, parents risk setting a poor example for their children on how to deal with their own feelings.
Mixing alcohol and drugs can also seriously impair a parent’s ability to react to an emergency and care for their child’s basic needs. For example, mixing a depressant such as a sleep medication with alcohol may make a parent so drowsy, they’re unable to respond to a sick child. Driving while under the influence of a medication and even just one drink can heighten drowsiness and lead to a life-threatening accident.
Given these dangers and how easily medications are prescribed, Mike Bloom, owner of Pasadena Recovery Center, says we all need to be more vigilant to understand the dangers of mixing meds with alcohol.
“I don’t think that patients get enough education,” says Bloom. “I don’t think doctors are good at educating the patient, and I also think that the patient doesn’t use discretion, either.”
Clearer instructions and more strict warnings on prescriptions may also help, as noted in one mini study by Consumer Reports. They found that the same medication filled at different pharmacies may have varying instructions.
Safe medicating means no mixing
Remember, medication can stay in the body hours after taking it, so having alcohol even much later can still have consequences. And it’s hard to tell how just one drink will impact your medications.
As we age, alcohol affects our bodies faster because of a slower metabolism and lesser water content. Women are generally smaller than men and have less of a certain enzyme, which means they can be more susceptible to alcohol’s effects.
Tips to keep you healthy and safe
It’s important for parents and anyone whose lifestyle includes medications and occasional drinking to keep some basic tips in mind:
Check medication labels for specifics on not taking with alcohol.
Learn why alcohol can compromise the medication. Review the list of side effects and effects of mixing.
Know the risks from combining alcohol and prescription medications. They can include:
- worsening health conditions
- medication not working properly or becoming toxic
- impaired breathing
- memory problems
- rapid heartbeat
- nausea, vomiting
- changes in blood pressure
Be aware that you may be taking drugs that can have much more serious and dangerous side effects when combined with alcohol. These drugs can be for a variety of common conditions and reasons. These drugs include:
- anxiety or depression medication
- arthritis medication
- blood thinners
- cold and allergy medication
- diabetes medication
- epilepsy or seizure medication
- heart burn medication
- heart medication
- high blood pressure medication
- high cholesterol medication
- medication for enlarged prostate
- pain relievers
- sedatives or sleep aids
The #DONTMIX campaign, part of NCPIE’s Think Before You Drink nationwide campaign, focuses on the dangers of mixing alcohol and medications. It recommends being honest with your doctor about your drinking habits and all the medications you take, including over-the-counter meds, vitamins, and supplements.
Follow all the warnings on your medication labels — they’re on there for a reason. Take them as prescribed, and report if you experience any side effects to your doctor.
Small actions can lead to big — and unintended — consequences. Ignoring the small print on those warning labels is no different. Even if you think you can handle your drugs and a small drink, it’s not worth it to take the chance. So, next time you pick up your medications, don’t forget to read and heed all the warning labels. Protect yourself and your family — don’t mix.
Renée Fabian is a Los Angeles-based journalist who covers mental health, music, the arts, and more. Her work has been published with Vice, The Fix, Wear Your Voice, The Establishment, Ravishly, The Daily Dot, and The Week, among others. You can check out the rest of her work via her website, and connect with her on Twitter.