What Are the Effects of Mixing Painkillers and Alcohol?

Anyone who has taken any form of medication or watches television has seen the warning regarding mixing certain types of medications with alcohol. Mixing alcohol with painkillers can be a deadly combination.1 This article will discuss the general effects of mixing alcohol with painkillers and briefly outline a treatment plan to address abuse or addiction to both.

Side Effects of Taking Painkillers with Alcohol

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There are many different types of analgesics or painkillers on the market. The general rule of thumb is not to drink alcohol if you are taking certain types of painkillers and over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics, including:

  • Opioid painkillers that can only be acquired via a physician’s prescription.
  • OTC analgesic medications containing acetaminophen.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications if you’re at risk of gastric or peptic ulceration, or otherwise experiencing gastrointestinal irritation.

In order to determine how to safely use the drug and what other drugs are safe to take with it, you should:

  • Only take the medication in the suggested dosage and over the successive time intervals listed on the instructions.
  • Do not drink moderate to large amounts of alcohol even if there is no warning about mixing alcohol and the medication that one is taking (moderate to heavy drinking is considered to be 4 to 5 drinks a day).
  • Always refer to the patient information insert that comes with medication for information regarding what types of drugs can and cannot be taken with the analgesic.
    • You can always contact your physician or your pharmacist if you have further questions. It never hurts to ask.

The side effects of taking prescription painkillers and alcohol together include:2,3

  • Potential for synergistic effects.
    • Painkillers have the effect of depressing central nervous system functions. Alcohol has the same effect. Using both alcohol and painkillers together results in a more severe depressive effect than either taken separately.
  • Increased potential for overdose.
    • When you drink alcohol, the amount of a particular painkiller needed to produce an overdose can be significantly decreased.
  • Increased sedation. This can result in issues with judgment.
  • Aggression.
  • Increased potential for developing:
    • Brain damage.
    • Damage to the cardiovascular system.
    • Damage to the liver.
    • Damage to the gastrointestinal tract.
    • Damage to the respiratory system as a result of multiple drug use.
  • Physical effects, such as:
    • Dizziness.
    • Nausea.
    • Vomiting.
    • Alterations in your heartbeat.
    • Depressed respiration.
    • Unconsciousness.
  • Psychological effects, such as:
    • Depression.
    • Anxiety.
    • Development of psychosis (hallucinations and delusions).
  • An increased potential to develop physical dependence or addiction.

Treatment for Addiction to Painkillers and Alcohol

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Painkillers that are potentially highly addictive typically have to be purchased with a prescription. Individuals who become addicted to narcotic pain medications and alcohol run the risk of developing a serious physical dependence to both drugs. This can complicate treatment.

Depending on the level of physical dependence that has been developed to alcohol and to any narcotic medication, there are several steps involved in the treatment of addiction to painkillers and alcohol. These steps include:4

  • A comprehensive assessment of the individual’s substance use history, personal history, psychological history and medical history.
    • The assessment also should include an assessment of the individual’s support system, obligations and any legal entanglements.
  • A medical detox program if physical dependence is found to be present.
    • This will typically include medically supervised administration of medication to assist an individual in negotiating through the detoxification process and withdrawal period.
  • Long-term maintenance, therapy, and support following detox.
    • Many individuals are under the mistaken impression that their treatment is over after the detoxification process is complete and they are free of their addiction. Nothing could be further from the truth. The detox process is simply the first step in recovery. Individuals will also require:

If you’re concerned that the co-abuse of alcohol and painkillers is impacting your health, or that of someone close to you, substance abuse treatment programs can help. Call us at 1-888-919-3845  to speak with a treatment support advisor about your recovery options.

Sources

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines.
  2. Ingersoll, R. E., & Rak, C. (2015). Psychopharmacology for Mental Health Professionals: An Integrative Approach. Stamford, CT: Nelson Education.
  3. Doweiko, H. (2011). Concepts of Chemical Dependency. (8th Ed.) Stamford, CT: Nelson Education.
  4. Miller, W. R., Forcehimes, A. A., & Zweben, A. (2011). Treating Addiction: A Guide for Professionals. New York: The Guilford Press.
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