Is It Safe to Mix Painkillers and Alcohol?

"Do not drink alcoholic beverages while taking this medication." You've probably seen this warning label on medication you've taken, and the label doesn't lie. Alcohol and prescription drugs don't mix. Even the combination of alcohol and over-the-counter medications can lead to severe health problems. If you take prescription painkillers regularly, you risk a dangerous drug interaction every time you drink alcohol.

In short, alcohol and pain medication are a deadly combination, so it's best not to mix them.

Alcohol and drugs
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How Alcohol Interacts With Painkillers

Different types of medications interact with alcohol differently and can have harmful effects, even herbal remedies. Whatever kind of medication you're taking, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, you need to know the risks.

  • Anticonvulsants. Combining alcohol with an anticonvulsant also referred to as an antiepileptic, puts you at a greater risk for seizures, even if you are taking an anticonvulsant to treat chronic pain. The combination can also cause severe drowsiness and lightheadedness.
  • Opioids. Mixing alcohol and opioids can be lethal. The combination can make you drowsy and cause memory problems. In some cases, mixing the two causes of breathing problems and can lead to an accidental overdose.
  • NSAIDs. Alcohol and over-the-counter or prescription NSAIDs aren't necessarily dangerous in the short term, but it can increase your risk for developing ulcers or liver damage over time.
  • Antidepressants: When combined with antidepressants, alcohol can increase feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts, especially in adolescents. Mixing the two can cause drowsiness and dizziness, and it can also lead to an accidental overdose.

Mixing alcohol with any type of medication can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, fainting, loss of coordination, difficulty breathing, internal bleeding, and heart problems. It can also mask, or in some cases worsen serious medication side effects.

The Risks of Mixing Alcohol and Medication

Mixing alcohol and pills is dangerous, but there are certain things that increase an individual's odds of a harmful interaction. For example, alcohol affects women differently than it affects men because the female body generally weighs less and contains less water than the male body. Therefore, a man and woman can drink the same amount of alcohol, but the amount of alcohol in the woman's bloodstream will be at a much higher concentration.

Women are more prone to dangerous drug interactions, liver damage, and other alcohol-induced health issues than men.

The elderly are also at risk. Because the body's ability to break down alcohol worsens with age, alcohol stays in the body longer. Older people are also more likely to be prescribed medication that interacts with alcohol in the first place.

The Dangers of Drinking on Painkillers

Mixing medication and alcohol is potentially life-threatening, but alcohol is a dangerous substance by itself. Consuming alcohol leads to an increased chance of liver disease, heart disease, pancreatitis, and certain types of cancer. These serious health conditions are mostly associated with heavy drinking, but even moderate drinkers are also at risk.

Is it bad to have a drink from time to time if you have chronic pain? As long as you are not taking medications that interact with alcohol, probably not. However, moderate to heavy drinkers should definitely consider breaking the habit.

How to Prevent a Dangerous Interaction

Alcohol and medication can have a harmful interaction even if they're taken at different times. It's important to understand the very real possibility of a reaction.

Talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist about the types of medication you are taking and how they interact with alcohol. If you're taking medication and you don't know how it reacts to alcohol, don't consume alcohol. It's not worth the risk.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines. NIH Publication No. 03–5329.

  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Women and Alcohol.

  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol's Effects on the Body.

By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.