2017: Think Before You Drink—sometimes, alcohol and medicines don't mix

Introduction

October 2017 marks the 32nd Talk About Your Medicines Month. TAYMM is an annual opportunity to focus attention on the value that better medicine communication plays in promoting better medicine use and better health outcomes. Over time, TAYMM has grown and expanded to stimulate conversations between consumers and their healthcare providers about all the types of medicines they may take, with a focus on what to know about a medication in terms of expected health outcomes, possible side effects, benefits and potential risks.
 

Think Before You Drink, sometimes, alcohol and medicines don't mix

This year, NCPIE is spotlighting a critically important medicine safe use issue as the focus of our 32nd annual Talk About Your Medicines Month: Think Before You Drink—sometimes, alcohol and medicines don't mix.  And this can be especially so for America's aging Baby Boomers and older adults.
 

Common medications that interact with alcohol

Many prescription medications may interact with alcohol to cause potentially dangerous adverse effects.  Prescription medications also may not work as intended when combined with alcohol, or may not work at all. Or, they may become harmful—even deadly.
 
It can be hard to gauge the effects of even just one drink if you are taking a prescription medication. Medications remain in your body for at least several hours, so you could still experience adverse effects if you drink alcohol hours after taking your prescription.

Risks from combining alcohol and prescription medications

Aging + alcohol + prescription medications = health risk

Whether you are a baby boomer (adults ages 51-69), an older adult, a health care provider, or a caregiver, being aware of the potential for dangerous interactions between prescription medications and alcohol can help you prevent them. You may feel on top of your game, health wise, or have felt the nagging effects of aging mentally or physically for years. Perhaps a family member, caregiver, or your health care professional has shared an observation about an age-related health issue. The good news is that you are in good company. Today, one in three Americans is 50 or older—45 percent of the U.S. population. By 2029, all the baby boomers will be 65 years and older.

More good news about aging

We know a lot about how aging affects our bodies, thanks to research advances. And, we now know that what we eat, drink, and how we treat our bodies can affect our long-term health.

Learn the facts about how alcohol affects your body as you age. You may not be surprised to learn that drinking alcohol is a different experience now than when you were 30.

Five facts about aging, medication use, and alcohol consumption

Be aware of medication and alcohol interactions similar but not exactly the same

Check the label on your prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications or on the medications you manage for someone else for this statement: “Do Not Use With Alcohol,” and heed it.

Aging, medications, and alcohol use (download pdf)

Drinking alcohol when you are taking some prescription medications is a health risk for many baby boomers (ages 51-69) and older adults. This practice can have far-reaching health effects. Think Before You Drink is designed to remind baby boomers and older adults to learn more about this health risk and how to prevent it.

Aging bodies don’t work well when some medications and alcohol are mixed

Even if you still feel at the top of your game, health-wise, aging can work against your health. The most obvious sign: Your body likely just doesn’t feel like it used to feel.

Older bodies work more slowly to clear medications and alcohol, which can make older adults more sensitive to their effects. We also have less tolerance to alcohol than do younger adults. You may be surprised to find that you experience the effects of alcohol more quickly, even if you drink the same amount, than you did when you were younger.

Memory problems, mood disorders, poor balance and coordination, and weakness are other age-related health challenges. Prescription medications can make these health issues worse, if the medications are misused, abused, and/or combined with alcohol.

NIAAA drinking guidelines for older adults

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, (NIAAA), adults age 65 and older who are health and do not take medications should not have more than:

  • Three drinks in a given day
  • Seven drink a week

If you have a health condition or take certain medication, you may need to drink less or not at all. Ask your health care professional for guidance.

Questions to ask your healthcare provider about medications

When you have questions about your medications and alcohol use, consider your local pharmacist and your health care professional your “go-to sources” for information.

Remember these 5 tips to help your health care professional help you manage your prescription medications safely: http://www.bemedwise.org/docs/images/tips_circle_icon-for-text_11.png

Ask these questions to learn more about your prescription medications and how to use them safely:

Caregiver corner: how to prevent medication interactions (download pdf)

Caregiving for an older adult involves many responsibilities. One of the most challenging caregiving tasks can be supervising prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

You may be responsible for picking up prescription and OTC medications from the pharmacy, organizing them, and administering them -or assisting the person in your care to take them as prescribed or recommended.

It’s likely that the older person in your care has more than one condition requiring a prescription medication and frequent interaction with a health care professional. As we age, long-term and chronic conditions become more common. Heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, reflux, and arthritis are common age-related conditions. Often, these conditions require management by more than one health care professional.

You may know that it’s important to be aware of medication interactions when someone takes multiple medications. But did you know that alcohol interacts with more than 150 medications, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?

Increased sensitivity and decreased tolerance to medication and alcohol

Not only are older adults more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and medications, many prescription medications may interact with alcohol to cause potentially dangerous adverse effects.

Prescription medications may not work as intended when combined with alcohol, or may not work at all. Or, they may become harmful—even toxic. And, alcohol may make health conditions worse.

Increased Sensitivity and Decreased Tolerance to Medication and Alcohol

Not only are older adults more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and medications, many prescription medications may interact with alcohol to cause potentially dangerous adverse effects.

Prescription medications may not work as intended when combined with alcohol, or may not work at all. Or, they may become harmful--even toxic. And, alcohol may make health conditions worse.

Read the label and heed it

These common prescription medications often display a label warning not drink alcohol while taking them. Is the medication for the person you care for on this list?

  • Anxiety or depression medication
  • Sedatives or sleep aids
  • High blood pressure medication
  • Allergy medication
  • Diabetes medication
  • Pain relievers
  • Antibiotics
  • Blood thinners
  • Heart medication
  • Heart burn medication
  • High cholesterol medication
  • Medication for enlarged prostate
  • Epilepsy/seizure medication
  • Arthritis medication

Risks from Combining Alcohol and Prescription Medications

Common health conditions for aging adults

  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Memory problems
  • Poor coordination and balance
  • Weakness

Communication is key

If appropriate, educate the person in your care about the dangers of drinking alcohol and using prescription medications. Consult a health care professional about potential interactions, if the person in your care drinks and takes a prescription medication.

When new medications are prescribed, ask the health care professional:

Remember your “go-to sources” for information about managing medications safely: your pharmacist and your healthcare provider.

At home, here are 10 tips to manage medication safely http://www.bemedwise.org/docs/images/tips_circle_icon-for-text_11.png

  1. Keep a list of all prescribed medications, supplements, and over-the-counter medications.
  2. Update the medication list when changes are made.
  3. Bring the medications list to appointments with health care professionals and review it for potentially harmful interactions.
  4. Review drinking habits of the person in your care with your health care professional for guidance.
  5. Read the label and note any warnings.
  6. Administer all medications exactly as directed on the label and by your health care professional or pharmacist.
  7. Use a system, like a pillbox or other aid, to keep track of when medications are given.
  8. Watch for medication reactions, especially when new medications are started.
  9. Be aware of symptoms caused by mixing medications and alcohol and know what to do if you if you observe them.
  10. Try to create a system for managing medication for the person in your care works for ach of you.

Stay informed for the people in your care. What you don’t know can hurt them!

Health care providers: help your patients avoid mixing alcohol and medications

The chances are that your practice includes a high percentage of older adults unless your specialty focuses on treating a young population.

Baby boomers (ages 51-69) began reaching retirement age in 2011 and, according to Census Bureau projections this group now drives growth in the older ages of the population. By 2029, more than 20 percent of the population will be age 65 or older.

Unique age-related health issues

Aging adults have unique health needs because of chronic or long-term health conditions that require multiple medication and treatment approaches. Increased sensitivity to medication in aging adults may complicate treatment options. Supervising medication and treatment needs for this population is challenging.

One of the biggest challenges for an aging adult’s health care team can be preventing medication interactions, misuse, and abuse. One approach to consider in this effort is to remind your patients about the potentially dangerous interaction between prescription medications and alcohol. Consider that approximately 62 percent of patients and caregivers are not aware of any safety warnings about their medications.

Alcohol can cause moderate to serious, and even fatal interactions with more than 150 medications, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA. For example, alcohol can heighten the effects of prescription medications that depress the central nervous system, such as benzodiazepines, antihistamines, and antidepressants. Medications prescribed for diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease also can interact adversely with alcohol.

Questions to ask your patients about alcohol use

To help raise your patient’s awareness about the potential for harmful interactions between prescription medication and alcohol use, start with a discussion. Use these tips:  http://www.bemedwise.org/docs/images/tips_circle_icon-for-text_11.png

  • Review the NIAAA recommended drinking guidelines with your patients
  • Remind your older adult patients about the potential for increased sensitivity to
  • Medication and increased sensitivity to medication and decreased tolerance for alcohol
  • Explain that medication can linger in the body for hours and that alcohol can still interact with prescriptions long after taking them
  • Discuss the importance of reading and understanding medication label instructions and warnings.

Here are suggested questions to get a conversation started with your older patients:

  1. Do you know how to read the labels on your prescription medications?
  2. Do you have questions about how to take your prescription medications?
  3. Do you drink alcohol? How much? How often?
  4. Can you stop drinking alcohol when you use this prescription medication?
  5. Do you understand the potential risks of drinking alcohol when you take your prescription medication?

Fact sheet (download pdf)

FACTS to know about aging, alcohol, and prescription medications

Drinking alcohol when you are taking a prescription medication is a health risk for baby boomers (ages 51-69) and for older adults. Aging adults have unique health considerations that make combining alcohol and prescription medications especially dangerous.1 And, the fact is, as you age, you are likely to take a prescription medication for one or more health issues common to aging.2

Learn more facts about the unique health risks associated with aging, alcohol, and prescription
medication.

Fact 1
Alcohol interacts with many medications.3 The list of medications that alcohol can interact with is a long one—and may surprise you. For example, alcohol should not be consumed if you are taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) or medicines containing acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is an active ingredient in many over-the-counter and prescription medicines. It is used in pain relief medicine, fever reducers, sleep aids, and cough, cold, and allergy medicines. Other medicines used to treat moderate to severe pain may also contain acetaminophen as an active ingredient. These medicines are available only by prescription. Examples include Hydrocet, Percocet, and Vicodin. Be sure to ask your physician if your medication is on this list. Adverse effects can range from minor to deadly.

Fact 2
Prescription medications may not work as intended when combined with alcohol.
Using alcohol while you are taking a prescription medication can potentially cause dangerous
side effects. Alcohol also can cancel the intended effects of your medication—which can be equally as dangerous. In other words, when combined with alcohol, your medication won’t work for the health issue it has been prescribed to treat or manage.

1 “Alcohol Use and Older Adults,” NIH Senior Health.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.

Fact 3
Older bodies are more sensitive to alcohol and medications than younger bodies.4
Older bodies are slower than younger bodies. When your metabolism slows down, your body may become more sensitive to the effects of medications and alcohol, and even to some types of foods. You may notice that drinking less alcohol affects you more now than when you were
younger.

Fact 4
Memory issues, poor balance and coordination, and weakness can be related to medication side effects or symptoms of an alcohol-related problem, or symptoms of your medication interacting with alcohol. 5 Drinking alcohol can make any of these health issues worse for older adults and put you at risk for falls, car crashes, and other unintentional injury.

Fact 5
“Do Not Use with Alcohol” on a medication label means that using alcohol while taking this
medication can be dangerous to your health.5 Review your prescription medications for this
warning and heed it. Ask your health care professional to review medication safety issues with
you.

Fact 6
Medications linger in your body for at least several hours.6 This fact means that alcohol may
interact with medication hours after your last dose. It’s never safe to use alcohol with a
prescription medication known to interact with it.

4  “Alcohol Use and Older Adults,” NIH Senior Health.
5  Ibid.
6  “Alcohol Use and Older Adults,” NIH Senior Health.

Risks from Combining Alcohol and Prescription Medications 

 

Additional Resources

Healthline articles related to the #DONTMIX campaign

Most Consumer Unaware of Danger in Mixing Alcohol and Common Drugs

Don't Mix: Parenting, Pills, and Pinot

Plan a “Talk About Your Medicines” event

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“Talk About Your Medicines” Month