Combining Alcohol & Drugs: Recipe for Disaster

Combining Alcohol & Drugs: Recipe for Disaster

As if alcohol and drugs aren’t dangerous enough by themselves, when you combine the substances, you’re just putting yourself at even more risk. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You could die, either from an overdose, poisoning, motor vehicle crash or a result of actions you undertake due to impaired judgment, slowed reaction time, increase of hostile and aggressive behavior and other negative consequences of mixing alcohol and drugs.

Consider these facts:

• More than 4 in 10 people who began drinking before the age of 15 eventually become alcoholics.

• An estimated 20 million adults in the U.S. abuse alcohol. Most of them (more than half) started drinking heavily when they were in their teenage years.

• In 2006, 19 percent of drivers aged 16 to 20 who died in motor vehicle crashes had been drinking alcohol.

• Using both alcohol and drugs puts you at risk for dangerous interactions between the substances. Alcohol plus drugs, whether they were prescribed for you or taken illegally, increases the risk of fatal poisoning.

• According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), mixing alcohol with medications can make you sleepy, drowsy and lightheaded. You may have trouble performing small tasks. People who drink alcohol and take drugs are at greater risk of injuries from falls.

What Happens in the Body?

Taking certain medications and alcohol begins a competition in the human body for absorption. The potency of the alcohol and/or medication is often increased. Each person is different, and so is the way their body will react to a cocktail of alcohol and drugs. These potentially fatal mixtures also vary depending on type of drug or alcohol, amount taken, the amount of time involved, the individual’s tolerance to the medication, drug or alcohol, and numerous other factors, often unpredictable.

Specific Interactions of Alcohol and Drugs

Medications are supposed to be taken for a short period of time (generally), and only for the specific purpose and/or for the person to whom they were prescribed. Even over-the-counter (OTC) medications, when taken in combination with alcohol, can cause serious problems – even fatal. The following interactions are listed by the NIAAA.

• Medicines taken for allergies, colds and flu (such as Allegra, Benedryl, Claritin, Dimetapp Cold & Allergy, Sudafed Sinus & Allergy, Triaminic Cold & Allergy, various Tylenol cold, flu, allergy and sinus medicines, and Zyrtec) interact with alcohol to cause drowsiness, dizziness and increased risk for overdose.

• Angina, chest pain and coronary heart disease medications, including Isordil (Isorbicide Nitroglycerin), combined with alcohol can result in rapid heartbeat, sudden changes in blood pressure, dizziness and fainting.

• Ativan, Klonopin, Librium, Paxil, Valium and Xanax – medications taken for anxiety and epilepsy, interact with alcohol to create reactions such as drowsiness, dizziness, overdose increase risk, slowed breathing (or difficult breathing), motor control that’s greatly impaired, behavior that’s unusual, and problems with memory.

• Medications to combat depression (a long list, but including Celexa, Paxil, Prozac, Wellbutrin, Zoloft and even herbal preparations like St. John’s Wort), when mixed with alcohol, can result in increased feelings of depression, thoughts of suicide (especially in teenagers), drowsiness, dizziness, and increased risk for overdose.

• Post-surgical medications, or those prescribed for severe pain due to injury (painkillers such as Darvocet, Demerol, Percocet and Vicodin), when taken in conjunction with alcohol, cause dizziness, drowsiness, increase the risk of overdose, slow or difficult breathing, impaired motor control, unusual behavior and memory problems.

Street Drugs and Alcohol

The allure of street drugs among particular individuals is yet another serious risk, especially when combined with alcohol. While the following list of street drugs is not all-inclusive, it does paint a vivid picture of the dangers of mixing street drugs and alcohol.

• Cocaine – This illegal street drug can kill you with a heart attack or stroke the first time you take it. Even if you somehow escape that fate, cocaine is a powerfully addictive drug that causes serious problems to your health. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) these include: constricting blood vessels, dilating pupils, increasing body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. Headaches, abdominal pain, nausea and weight loss are also common. Snorting cocaine can lead to nosebleeds, loss of sense of smell. Ingesting cocaine can cause severe bowel gangrene. Injecting the drug increases the risk of HIV and other blood-borne diseases. Binge use can lead to anxiety, irritability, restlessness and paranoia. Abusing cocaine can lead users to develop full-blown paranoid psychosis. Add alcohol to cocaine use and you have a substance produced in the body’s liver called cocaethylene. This poses a greater risk of sudden death than cocaine alone.

• Rohypnol – This so-called “date rape” and club drug can be lethal when mixed with alcohol and other central nervous system (CNS) depressants.

• GHB – Another club drug, GHB can cause coma and seizures. Combined with alcohol, GHB can result in nausea, breathing difficulties, poisonings, overdoses, date rapes and death.

• Ecstasy – MDMA, or ecstasy, is a synthetic, psychoactive drug that is similar to methamphetamine (a stimulant) and mescaline (a hallucinogen). It can produce severe anxiety, confusion, depression, sleep problems and drug craving. In addition, ecstasy can be dangerous to overall health and even be lethal. The effects on the body are similar to that of cocaine and amphetamines: increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, teeth clenching, blurred vision, nausea, faintness, chills and sweating. It can also produce (in rare instances) a condition called hyperthermia, or a rapid increase in body temperature that may cause failure of the liver, kidney and cardiovascular system and death. Combining ecstasy with alcohol only compounds the risks.

Bottom Line: Don’t Mix Alcohol and Drugs

The best advice is to never mix alcohol and drugs, in any combination. This means that if you are taking a pain reliever prescribed for your doctor following surgery, or if you are recovering from a cold and taking OTC medication, or you have trouble sleeping and are prescribed a medication to help with that – don’t take any alcohol at all. Better advice is to wean off any medications altogether, under a doctor’s supervision. Never quit taking a drug you have been prescribed cold turkey, or you may experience a life-threatening reaction, particularly for conditions involving the cardiovascular system.

Keep your mind and your body clear and free from the dangers of alcohol and drugs. You just may save your life – and those of others around you – in the process.

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