Such medications are widely used, prescried for common conditions such as depression, diabetes and high blood pressure.
The research is among the first to estimate the proportion of adult drinkers in the United States who may be mixing alcohol-interactive medications with alcohol. The resulting health effects can range from mild (nausea, headaches, loss of coordination) to severe (internal bleeding, heart problems, difficulty breathing).
“Combining alcohol with medications often carries the potential for serious health risks,” said Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of NIH. “Based on this study, many individuals may be mixing alcohol with interactive medications and they should be aware of the possible harms.”
The study, led by Dr. Rosalind Breslow, Ph.D., appears in the February 2015 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, now online at the journal’s website.
“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,” said Dr. Breslow, an epidemiologist in NIAAA’s Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research. “We suggest that people talk to their doctor or pharmacist about whether they should avoid alcohol while taking their prescribed medications.”
Older adults are at particular risk of experiencing alcohol-medication interactions. Not only are they more likely to be taking medications in general, but certain alcohol-interactive medications, such as diazepam (Valium), are metabolized more slowly as one ages, creating a larger window for potential interactions.
The researchers analyzed data from more than 26,000 adults ages 20 and older who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1999-2010). The survey asks participants about alcohol use in the past year and prescription drug use in the past month.
Dr. Breslow notes that the results of the study indicate potential (rather than actual) rates, because the researchers could not confirm whether drinking and medication use overlapped based on the available data. However, it is likely that those who drink regularly and take medication regularly are doing so in a similar time frame.
The main types of alcohol-interactive medications reported in the survey were blood pressure medications, sleeping pills, pain medications, muscle relaxers, diabetes and cholesterol medications, antidepressants and antipsychotics.
Based on recent estimates, about 71 percent of U.S. adults drink alcohol.
For more on alcohol-medication interactions, see this NIAAA fact sheet.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, is the primary U.S. agency for conducting and supporting research on the causes, consequences, prevention, and treatment of alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol problems. NIAAA also disseminates research findings to general, professional, and academic audiences. Additional alcohol research information and publications are available at http://www.niaaa.nih.gov.
About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.
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