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Many Americans at Risk for Alcohol–Medication Interactions

NIH study finds most older people use alcohol-interactive medications


Nearly 42% of U.S. adults who drink also report using medications known to interact with alcohol, based on a new study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Among those over 65 years of age who drink alcohol, nearly 78% report using alcohol-interactive medications.

Such medications are widely prescribed for common conditions, such as depression, diabetes, and hypertension.

The research is among the first to estimate the proportion of adult drinkers in the U.S. who may be mixing alcohol-interactive medications with alcohol. The resulting health effects can range from mild (nausea, headaches, and loss of coordination) to severe (internal bleeding, heart problems, and difficulty breathing).

“Combining alcohol with medications often carries the potential for serious health risks,” said Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the NIH. “Based on this study, many individuals may be mixing alcohol with interactive medications, and they should be aware of the possible harms.”

The study, led by Rosalind Breslow, PhD, was published online in the February 2015 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

“Our findings show that a substantial percentage of people who drink regularly, particularly older adults, could be at risk of harmful alcohol and medication interactions,” Breslow said. “We suggest that people talk to their doctor or pharmacist about whether they should avoid alcohol while taking their prescribed medications.”

Older adults are at particular risk of experiencing alcohol-medication interactions, Breslow noted. Not only are they more likely to be taking medications in general, but certain alcohol-interactive medications, such as diazepam (Valium), are metabolized more slowly as a person ages, creating a larger window for potential interactions.

The researchers analyzed data from more than 26,000 adults 20 years of age and older who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1999–2010). The survey asked participants about alcohol use during the past year and prescription drug use during the past month.

Breslow noted that the results of the study indicate potential (rather than actual) rates because the researchers could not confirm whether drinking and medication use overlapped, based on the available data. However, it is likely that those who drink regularly and take a medication regularly are doing so within a similar timeframe.

The main types of alcohol-interactive medications reported in the survey were blood pressure drugs, sleeping pills, pain medications, muscle relaxers, diabetes medications, cholesterol medications, antidepressants, and antipsychotics.

Based on recent estimates, approximately 71% of U.S. adults drink alcohol.

Sources: NIH; January 16, 2015; NIAA Fact Sheet; 2014.

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