There are many reasons why someone may begin mixing alcohol with drugs. Alcohol can increase the effects of certain drugs, making mixing an enticing choice for people looking to get “high”. For others, they may happen to be on one or multiple prescription medications and want to simply enjoy a drink.
Whether prescribed or illicit, the effects of mixing drugs and alcohol are very harmful. Mixing these two substances can lead to a substance abuse disorder that requires addiction treatment to resolve. Moreover, the interactions between drugs and alcohol can be dangerous, accelerating physical ailments. In some cases, mixing alcohol with drugs can even be fatal.
Why Do People Mix Drugs with Alcohol?
People begin mixing drugs and alcohol for quite a few different reasons. Mixing alcohol with certain medications or illicit substances can amplify the effects of the medication or illicit substance. This is commonly seen with prescription and illegally obtained opioids, which produce magnified effects when mixed with alcohol.
There are, of course, cases where people are on prescription medications, given to them by a doctor, and want to drink alcohol. Certain medications, though, produce dangerous effects when mixed with alcohol, regardless of their legality. It’s very common to hear or read drug interaction warnings regarding mixing alcohol with prescriptions. This is because dangerous side effects, including the following, are possible:
- Heart problems
- Internal bleeding
- Loss of coordination
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulties in breathing
- Potential damage to major organs like the heart and liver
Mixing alcohol with a drug can also negate the effects of the drug. Drastic consequences can occur as a necessary medication is rendered partially or fully ineffective. Additionally, some drugs may produce entirely new effects when mixed with alcohol. Due to the unpredictable outcomes when mixing alcohol with drugs, it’s important to confirm with your doctor whether or not you can have an alcoholic beverage when on particular medications.
The Effects of Mixing Drugs and Alcohol
Again, it is definitely unsafe to mix drugs and alcohol for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that it’s hard to predict exactly what can happen when mixing a particular drug with alcohol. This is because the effects generally range from person to person. Additionally, the unpredictability regarding interactions between drugs and alcohol is due to many different factors that include:
- What the drug contains
- How much of a drug you’ve taken
- Whether you’ve eaten food recently
- How tired you are or how much sleep you’ve gotten
One of the main concerns with mixing alcohol and drugs is how these mixtures can make the user excessively tired. Many medicines come with a risk of drowsiness which alcohol intensifies. Subsequently, driving a vehicle or operating any heavy machinery becomes highly dangerous. You don’t need to be operating a vehicle to experience a drug and alcohol-induced injury, though. In older people, the risk of injury or death, due to mixing, can come from a serious fall.
Mixing Alcohol and Prescriptions Medications
Mixing alcohol with prescription medication is a dangerous practice. This is because alcohol can change how a drug works, possibly aggravating medical issues. In many cases, alcohol can cause medications to do the opposite of what they are intended to do. For example, when individuals mix alcohol with medications meant to control diabetes, effects such as dangerous alterations in blood sugar are produced.
Whether drugs are prescription or over the counter, prescribed or bought illegally, it’s dangerous to mix different types of drugs with alcohol. From anticonvulsants to drugs used to control high blood pressure, there are a host of risks associated with mixing alcohol with prescription medication. Some popular medications that should never be mixed with drugs include:
Central nervous system (CNS) depressants refer to a wide range of drugs from the benzodiazepine, Xanax, to certain pain relievers that are classified as opioids. These drugs are used to slow the function of the brain and spinal cord. They usually are prescribed to treat conditions like anxiety, pain, or insomnia.
As a category, many medications are considered CNS depressants including the following:
- Barbiturates such as Luminal Sodium (phenobarbital) and Seconal (secobarbital)
- Benzodiazepines used to treat anxiety, like as Valium (diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam)
- Drugs used as a sedative or to induce sleep, including Ambien (zolpidem) and Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine)
- Prescription opiates and narcotics used to treat pain such as OxyContin (oxycodone) or Vicodin (acetaminophen and hydrocodone)
- Over the counter pain relievers, including Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen)
These medications should never be mixed with alcohol, which is also a depressant. Mixing multiple depressants can be fatal as both the effects of the drugs and the effects of alcohol become stronger when mixed. Consequently, this increases the chance of overdose or death because life-sustaining functions like breathing or a regular heart rate are negatively impacted.
CNS stimulants, as their name implies, do the opposite of CNS depressants. These drugs speed up the functions of the central nervous system. When alcohol is used in combination with these drugs, their effects are dampened by the depressing effects of alcohol. CNS stimulants include medications such as:
- Antihistamines and decongestants
- Medications such as Ritalin or Concerta (methylphenidate)
- The medication Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine)
The serious issues that can occur when mixing CNS stimulants and alcohol vary widely. However, even though the consequences vary, they are all very serious. Chronic abuse of CNS stimulants and alcohol can lead to complications regarding the liver, cardiovascular system, and gastrointestinal system. Psychological implications may also occur including the development of seizures or psychosis.
Developed and commonly prescribed for the treatment of clinical depression, antidepressants are not recommended to be used in conjunction with alcohol. Mixing alcohol with antidepressants is usually the result of an individual trying to achieve enhanced psychoactive effects of the drug they are taking. However, antidepressants aren’t known for their euphoric effects and can instead cause the following complications when mixed with alcohol:
- An increase in depression levels
- Damage to organs such as the liver
- Weakened effects of the antidepressants
- Decrease in motor functions, coordination, and reaction time
The greatest concern regarding alcohol and antidepressants is the introduction of a depressant to a person with diagnosed depression. As a depressant, alcohol can make depression worse. Further, its ability to negate the effects of antidepressants is concerning as it can put people at risk for increased thoughts of suicide.
Mixing Alcohol and Illicit Substances
Mixing alcohol with illicit substances is even more dangerous in some cases than mixing alcohol with prescription medications. This is because the composition of illicit substances is often different each time they’re bought. In fact, many drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, or heroin are mixed with a variety of substances to produce euphoric effects or increase their addictiveness.
Consequently, even if someone has mixed a drug with alcohol once without any negative effects, this doesn’t mean a negative reaction can’t happen in the future. A few illicit substances that are commonly—and dangerously—mixed with alcohol include:
Cocaine, a stimulant drug, is a popular party drug that people often combine with alcohol. Alcohol is generally used to deaden the effects of cocaine but can produce many harmful side effects. This is attributed to the production of the toxic substance Cocaethylene, which is created when cocaine mixes with alcohol. The production of this chemical is far more dangerous for the human body than when cocaine is taken on its own.
Illicit opioids, including prescription pills bought illegally, should never be taken with alcohol. Higher rates of toxicity are linked to mixing these substances. This is because alcohol changes how a person metabolizes certain substances. The amount of the opioid heroin, for example, that is needed to overdose is significantly lowered when a person has consumed alcohol.
Similar to how alcohol changes how a person metabolizes opiates, mixing alcohol with drugs can also lead to higher concentrations of methamphetamines, or meth, in the bloodstream. This is incredibly dangerous because meth, a powerful stimulant, increases a person’s heart rate on its own already. Meth, in turn, dampens the effects of alcohol, which can lead to overconsumption that leads to an overdose.
Ecstasy, a drug commonly taken at parties and raves, presents dangers such as overheating, exhaustion, and dehydration. This is a major concern as alcohol can exacerbate the negative side-effects of ecstasy. Additionally, ecstasy is commonly cut with other drugs to increase the euphoric effects it causes. This can lead to additional and unknown interactions which may prove to be fatal.
Substance Use Disorders and Polysubstance Abuse
Mixing alcohol with drugs is habit-forming and can lead to the development of a polysubstance abuse disorder. This is when a person develops an addiction to two different substances at once. The frequent combination of two drugs leads to a physical dependence on both, which requires specialized treatment to address.
Polysubstance abuse is complicated and can be difficult to treat if not diagnosed properly. Therefore, the multiple substances being abused must be disclosed to treatment professionals. Offering transparency regarding the substances you take ensures that the cognitive, physical, and emotional consequences of the drugs are addressed. Otherwise, only one addiction may be treated, leading to an eventual relapse.
Getting Treatment for Polysubstance Abuse
Even when the drugs you take are medications prescribed to you by a doctor, mixing them with alcohol is dangerous and potentially life-threatening. If you find yourself mixing alcohol and drugs, outside of a doctor’s permission, and are unable to stop, help is available.
Here at Free by the Sea, we understand that addiction is a chemical dependency that requires specialized treatment. This is especially true for someone suffering from an addiction to two or more substances. Fortunately, help is just one conversation away. To explore treatment plans and find the best treatment option for your specific needs, contact us today.
Dr. Richard Crabbe joined our team in 2019 as our psychiatrist and medical director. He attended the University of Ghana Medical School where he became a Medical Doctor in 1977. From 1978 through 1984, he was a medical officer in the Ghana Navy and provided a variety of services from general medicine to surgeries. He received his Certificate in General Psychology from the American Board of Psychology and Neurology in 2002.