SOURCES: Rosalind Breslow, Ph.D., epidemiologist, U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA); Aaron White, Ph.D., neuroscientist, NIAAA; Karen Gunning, Pharm.D., professor, pharmacotherapy, University of Utah College of Pharmacy, Salt Lake City; Leigh Briscoe-Dwyer, Pharm.D., chief pharmacy and medication safety officer, North Shore-LIJ Health System, Lake Success, N.Y.; February 2015, Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, online
FRIDAY, Jan. 16, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- A substantial number of Americans who drink also take medications that should not be mixed with alcohol, new government research suggests.
The study, of nearly 27,000 U.S. adults, found that among current drinkers, about 43 percent were on prescription medications that interact with alcohol. Depending on the medication, that mix can cause side effects ranging from drowsiness and dehydration to depressed breathing and lowered heart rate.
It's not clear how many people were drinking and taking their medications around the same time -- or even on the same day, the researchers stressed.
"But this does tell us how big the problem could potentially be," said study co-author Aaron White, a neuroscientist at the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
He and his colleagues report the findings in the February online edition of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
Alcohol is a bad mix with many different types of medications, White said.
The consequences vary, according to the NIAAA. For instance, drinking while taking sedatives -- such as sleeping pills or prescription painkillers like Vicodin or OxyContin -- can cause dizziness, drowsiness or breathing problems. Mixing alcohol with diabetes drugs, such as metformin (Glucophage), can send blood sugar levels too low or trigger nausea, headaches or a rapid heartbeat.
Alcohol is also a bad mix with common pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve), because of the potential for ulcers and stomach bleeding, noted Karen Gunning, a professor of pharmacotherapy at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
But for any ill effects to happen, the alcohol and medication would have to be active in the body at the same time, said Gunning, who was not involved in the study. And it's not clear how often that was true for the people in the survey.
Still, Gunning said the findings highlight an important issue: People should be aware of whether their medications are a dangerous mix with alcohol.
"This all comes down to having a discussion with your doctor or pharmacist," Gunning said.
Your pill bottle might have an orange warning label about drinking, she noted -- but it may not be clear what that means. Should you avoid drinking altogether? Or can you take your medication in the morning, and still have wine with dinner?
"Definitely ask specific questions," Gunning said. "Those warning stickers should be a prompt for a discussion."
The findings were based on responses from almost 27,000 U.S. adults who took part in a government health survey. About three-quarters of men and two-thirds of women in the study were considered "current drinkers," because they'd had alcohol on at least one day in the past year.
Of those current drinkers, about 42 percent said that in the past month, they'd used a medication that can interact with alcohol. That figure was even higher among drinkers older than 65, at about 78 percent, the findings showed.
That's particularly concerning, said Rosalind Breslow, another NIAAA researcher who worked on the study. "Older adults often have multiple health conditions, and are taking multiple medications," Breslow said. "And as you age, your body doesn't metabolize alcohol as well."
Medication metabolism also changes with age, White noted. He pointed to the sedative Valium as an example: The drug takes three times longer to clear from a 60-year-old's body, compared to a 20-year-old's.
Another pharmacist agreed that people who drink alcohol should ask questions about any prescriptions they fill.
And there's no need to feel self-conscious about your drinking habits, said Leigh Briscoe-Dwyer, chief pharmacy and medication safety officer at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Lake Success, N.Y.
"When it comes to alcohol use, many of us aren't completely honest about it," she said. "But no one is going to judge you. It's important to have these discussions."
The NIAAA has more on alcohol/medication interactions.