March 2015

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Are You at Risk for Alcohol-Medication Interactions?

Many people may be both drinking alcohol and taking prescription drugs that interact with alcohol, according to an NIH-funded study. The finding highlights the need to talk with a health care professional about the risks of drinking alcohol while taking prescription medications.

About 71% of U.S. adults drink alcohol. Alcohol can interact with many commonly prescribed medications, including drugs to treat pain, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Alcohol can make some medications less effective or even useless. Combining alcohol with medications may cause other side effects, such as nausea, fainting, and loss of coordination. More severe effects include internal bleeding, heart problems, and difficulty breathing. Older adults are especially at risk for alcohol-medication interactions.

To learn more about alcohol and prescription medicine use, a team led by NIH’s Dr. Rosalind Breslow analyzed data from more than 26,000 U.S. adults. The researchers found that about 42% of adults who drink also use medications that interact with alcohol. Nearly 78% of adult drinkers over age 65 use such drugs. Among the most frequent drinkers (5-7 drinks per week), 38% use medications that interact with alcohol.

The scientists note that the available data couldn’t confirm whether drinking and medication use overlapped. These are potential, rather than actual, rates. Still, they highlight the possible scale of this problem.

“Our findings show that a substantial percentage of people who drink regularly, particularly older adults, could be at risk of harmful alcohol and medication interactions,” Breslow says. “We suggest that people talk to a doctor or pharmacist about whether they should avoid alcohol while taking prescribed medications.”