Each day in the United States, nearly 80 people lose their lives because of an opioid overdose. In many of these instances, alcohol is also complicit—despite the prescription drug label that reads “Do not drink alcohol while using this medication.”
Many people who take prescription or illicit opioids minimize the dangers of combining them with alcohol. Both substances can cause powerful effects in their own right; when combined, they can have devastating health effects that could prove fatal….
What Happens When Users Mix Opioids and Alcohol?
Mixing opioids and alcohol intensifies the effects of both substances, according to users’ reports. These effects can also depend on individualized variables, such as a person’s drug and alcohol tolerance, their gender, their overall health, and of course what opioid they consumed and how much alcohol they drank. As a general rule, mixing prescription painkillers with alcohol does lead to an amplifying effect—one that can only be dangerous.
It isn’t merely the amplification of the substances’ typical effects that users must consider, though. Alcohol can also interact with medications to produce effects that someone wouldn’t usually experience when only drinking. These effects can lead to reduced motor function, increased brain fog, and may even compromise respiratory function. While the medical community has long understood and attempted to communicate the dangers of mixing alcohol and opioids, the practice continues to be widespread, with tragic, life-threatening results.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?
Alcohol affects the brain as well as the body. Drinking too much alcohol on a single occasion or drinking too much over time can lead to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and stroke. It can even cause the heart muscle to sag and droop.
Alcohol can take a heavy toll on organs such as the liver, as evidenced by conditions like alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis, and the brain. For example, people who drink for a long period of time are at increased risk of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
The short-term dangers to health and safety of over-indulging in alcohol are also a force to be reckoned with. People may experience brain fog or engage in high-risk behaviors because alcohol has impaired their cognitive and decision-making abilities. Poor coordination, slurred speech, and passing out—not to mention dramatic changes in mood—are also common when under the influence.
How Do Opioids Affect the Body?
Doctors typically prescribe opioid medications to reduce pain. When taken properly, these medications should not involve over-powering side effects, but people may experience increased fatigue or some brain fog. On the other hand, when people misuse prescription drugs or take illicit opioids like heroin, they are often doing so to feel the drug’s heightened effects, such as the euphoria it can produce.
Opioids target the “feel good” or reward center of the brain. These drugs block the brain’s pain signals and sensations and can serve a therapeutic purpose when taken as prescribed. When misused, though, they can be deadly.
What Happens When Opioids and Alcohol Are Taken Together?
Often, alcohol amplifies the effects of opioids in the system. The alcohol-opioid mix is especially dangerous because of where opioids affect the brain. As mentioned, prescription painkillers like fentanyl or illegal opioids like heroin affect the reward center of the brain, but this part of the brain also controls the respiratory system—breathing. Taking too much of an opioid leads to overdose; this overdose typically means that the drug has suppressed the respiratory system to the point that the person isn’t breathing normally or may have stopped breathing altogether.
Even if a person is taking a low dose of an opioid and then takes a drink, the alcohol magnifies the effects of the opioid to such a degree that it as if the individual had doubled or tripled their original opioid dose. Alcohol is itself a depressant—it depresses or slows downs parts of the body and the brain. When a person is under the influence of both opioids and alcohol, the combined effects can lead to reduced respiratory function and may cause other side effects including:
- Changes in blood pressure
- Irregular heart rhythm
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of coordination
- Disinhibition/abnormal behaviors
- Blacking out
- Slowed breathing
In life-threatening situations, the person might go into full respiratory arrest, may fall into a coma, and may die. The fact is, there is no safe amount of alcohol that a person can consume while taking opioids. Beer and wine aren’t safer to consume than hard alcohol. As warning labels indicate, no alcohol should be consumed when taking opioid drugs.
How Long Should a Person Wait After Drinking to Take a Prescription?
People may begin to feel the effects of alcohol decrease after a few hours from their last drink, but that doesn’t mean that alcohol has left the body. In fact, a breathalyzer can typically register the alcohol level within 24 hours of a person’s last drink.
Recommendations vary when it comes to how long to wait before beginning an opioid medication after alcohol use. Answers range between 24 and 72 hours. The safest course of action for an individual is to consult their own physician or pharmacist. People who are on a prescription medication should simply not drink at all until they’re no longer taking the drug. Again, they should ask their doctor when it’s safe to consume alcohol after completing a prescription.
What Happens If a Person Accidentally Takes Opioids and Alcohol?
Sometimes people don’t intend to mix opioids and alcohol, or they might be surprised at the effects they’re experiencing after having a drink or two while on an opioid. Each person is different, so there’s no generalized way to answer this question other than to inform people that they should call their physician, physician’s hotline, a poison control center, or a hospital. Medical staff can help individuals gauge the severity of the side effects they’re experiencing and whether or not they should seek emergency care.
Mixing These Drugs for a Better High
People addicted to opioids will experience a tolerance to the drug. This means that the high they felt weeks and months earlier will decrease in intensity as their body becomes accustomed to the dose they’re taking. When this happens, someone with a developing addiction may increase their dose or combine the opioid with another substance such as alcohol to intensify their high.
A person doesn’t need to have an addiction to overdose, of course. Taking opioids and alcohol together automatically raises the risks of an overdose, among other unwanted negative health effects. Anyone who’s feeling compelled to combine opioids and alcohol is engaging in substance abuse and risking their health and wellbeing.
One-third of people who visit an emergency room with drug overdose symptoms also have alcohol in their systems. Thousands of people lose their lives every year because of this potentially deadly cocktail. Clearly, the dangers of mixing opioids and alcohol are not empty warnings.
The tragedy is that these deaths are preventable. If you’re struggling to end a habit of prescription drugs and alcohol, we want you to know there’s a road out of that despair and a way back—to freedom, wholeness, and recovery. To start that journey, call us day or night. We can help.