Information in this column is based on a newsletter called Worst Pills, Best Pills. I suggest subscribing to this newsletter (800-289-3787) if you or members of your family take over-the- counter or prescription drugs. You do not need medical knowledge to understand the content of this newsletter, and it can be lifesaving.
Research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has shown that many people, especially those over 65, may be incurring a risk by using alcohol when taking prescription drugs. Alcohol, itself a drug, becomes more intoxicating if the drug taken will block the stomach’s ability to metabolize alcohol. This is true of commonly used drugs for treating gastrointestinal ulcers such as ranitidine (Zantac and Tagamet), and also true for the smoking cessation drug Chantix.
People combining alcohol and sedatives, including benzodiazepines (such as Valium or Ativan) and sleeping pills of all kinds, can experience increased sedation, impaired breathing, and be more likely to fall or have serious accidents. Respiratory arrest can occur.
Alcohol can impair the metabolism of drugs, resulting in risk of drug overdose. This could happen with the drug warfarin (Coumadin), used as a blood thinner, and could result in an increased risk of bleeding. Conversely, long term heavy drinking could increase the metabolism of warfarin and increase the risk of blood clots. It is clear that people on warfarin should not drink heavily and be aware of their levels of the blood thinner.
Alcohol can interact with antibiotics, anti-fungal drugs, antidepressants, antihistamines, diabetes drugs, opioids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen (Advil and Aleve), and Tylenol.
People who are used to having a glass of wine with dinner may not experience problems with medications. However, heavier drinking can cause serious problems. Therefore, the following advice is very important: check with your pharmacist and your health care provider before using alcohol with any prescription or over-the-counter drug. Read the warning labels on the bottle or package. If it says not to drink alcohol – don’t drink it!
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH