While many people will be used to hearing messages about the effect that alcohol can have on your general health, the problems that can occur when drinking alcohol while taking regular medication are less well-known.
As pharmacists we are often the main point of contact for people taking regular medicines, many of whom have long term health conditions. We have a responsibility to ensure that people are taking their medication correctly and so take every opportunity to talk to people and remind them about some of the dangers of drinking alcohol when taking medication. This is important so that they can make an informed choice about their health and wellbeing.
In some cases, drinking alcohol while on medication affects the ability of the drug to metabolise (break down) in the body, which means that the medicine doesn’t work as intended. An example is Warfarin, a drug often used to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots in veins and arteries. Warfarin helps to thin the blood and is often prescribed to people with an irregular heartbeat or those who have had a heart attack. When mixed with alcohol Warfarin stays in the body for much longer, which can cause the blood to become too thin, increasing the possibility of bleeds and bruising.
On the flipside, alcohol can do the complete opposite and increase the medication’s effect on the body, which can have dangerous health consequences. This can potentially increase a drug’s side effects.
Alcohol can also exacerbate a drug’s side effects in other ways, for example, some painkillers or anti-histamines may make you feel drowsy –taken with alcohol your drowsiness will very likely be increased.
In some instances alcohol can also react with medication and form dangerous toxins. One such example is Metronidazole, an antibiotic often prescribed by dentists. Taken with alcohol, the mix can cause you to become violently ill.
With nearly 3 million*** people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK, it is one of the most common long term health conditions. Diabetics need to be aware of the effects of drinking alcohol because it can interact with their medication. Diabetics may be taking medication which manages their cells’ ability to absorb glucose. Alcohol lowers your blood glucose concentration by enhancing the effect of anti-diabetic medication and blocking the liver’s ability to produce glucose. This can make you more likely to suffer a ‘hypo’ (hypoglycaemia), a potentially serious condition that occurs when a person’s blood sugar levels are abnormally low. Symptoms of a ‘hypo’ can be similar to drunkenness.
These are just some examples of some of the dangers of mixing medication and alcohol. Of course, this is not meant to alarm people. Many people enjoy drinking alcohol in moderation and, similarly, most people aim to take their medicines responsibly and do so. However, as pharmacists we do see many people who are – often unintentionally – taking risks with their health, either by drinking far too much alcohol or because they are drinking while on medication.
As healthcare professionals, our main aim is to ensure people are armed with the right information so that they can take their medicines safely and effectively. Most pharmacists will be more than happy to give you advice – we don’t want to stop people from enjoying a tipple as long as it’s not at the expense of their health!
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