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Nearly half of U.S. drinkers mix prescription drugs with alcohol

January 22, 2015
by Julia Brown, Associate Editor
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According to a study released by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nearly 42 percent of American adults who drink also report using medications known to interact with alcohol, which can cause mild to severe symptoms ranging from nausea, headaches and loss of coordination to internal bleeding, heart problems and difficulty breathing.

Researchers analyzed data from more than 26,000 adults ages 20 and older who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination (1999-2010), which asks participants about alcohol use in the past year and prescription drug use in the past month.

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.

Older adults at higher risk

The study also shows that among adults over 65 years of age who drink alcohol, nearly 78 percent report using alcohol-interactive medications.

Older adults are even more at risk for experiencing alcohol-medication interactions, according to NIH. Not only are they generally more likely to be taking medications, but alcohol-interactive medications metabolize slower in older adults, increasing the likelyhood of an interaction. 

Lead author Rosalind Breslow, PhD, epidemiologist in the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (part of the NIH Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research), said in a statement that it's important to note the results of the study indicate potential rates rather than actual ones. Based on the available data, the researchers could not confirm whether drinking and medication use overlapped. However, a similar time frame is likely among those who drink regularly and take medication regularly.

Breslow recommends more open communication between patients and their doctors and pharmacists on whether to avoid alcohol while taking prescribed medications.

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