A new study has found nearly half of those who drink alcohol in the United States have used one or more alcohol-interactive prescription medications that researchers say can lead to dangerous health complications and in some cases, be deadly.
Approximately 71 percent of American adults consume alcohol. While alcohol interacts negatively with hundreds of commonly prescribed medications, little research has been done on a population level about the use of alcohol-interactive (AI) prescription medication among U.S. drinkers.
A team of researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Maryland examined data from the 1999-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Participants included 26,657 adults from age 20 to over 65, who provided information on alcohol consumption and prescription medication use.
The most common prescription medications being taken included drugs for diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sleep aids, and painkillers.
"Almost 42 percent of drinkers in the U.S. population used one or more AI prescription medications," said. Dr. Rosalind Breslow, lead study author and epidemiologist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). "Among seniors, aged 65 and older, the proportion was even higher, almost 78 percent.”
Breslow told FoxNews.com that AI medicatdion use in older drinkers is higher because people develop more chronic diseases as they age and are more likely to be taking multiple medications to treat multiple conditions— meaning more risk of dangerous side effects from adding alcohol.
“As we age, our ability to metabolize alcohol decreases. So alcohol might remain in our systems longer to interact with medications,” she said. “Furthermore, the metabolism of several medications that interact with alcohol slows as we get older, creating a larger window for potential alcohol/medication interactions.”
According to co-author Aaron White, a neuroscientist at the NIAAA, the consequences of mixing prescription medications with alcohol should not be taken lightly, and can have a variety of potentially life-threatening effects.
“Mixing alcohol and other sedatives, like sleeping pills, narcotic pain medications or muscle relaxers, can compound these problems and potentially cause injuries and death,” White told FoxNews.com. “They can cause sleepiness, problems with coordination and potentially suppress brain stem areas tasked with controlling vital reflexes like breathing, heart rate, and gagging to clear the airway.”
In addition to sedatives, White said certain antibiotics and some heart medications and diabetes treatments can interfere with the metabolism of acetaldehyde, a product of alcohol metabolism, leading to toxic reactions that include nausea, sweating and vomiting after alcohol consumption.
“Alcohol increases insulin levels and lowers blood glucose, so combining alcohol with anti-diabetic drugs that regulate glucose levels could cause an undesirable drop in blood sugar. And, over time, it could contribute to insulin insensitivity," he said.
"Our findings highlight a major gap in the literature," said Breslow. "We found no U.S. nationally representative data that queried combined use of alcohol with a wide range of prescription medications, and yet it appears that a large percentage of people who drink regularly could be at risk of serious alcohol and medication interactions."
Results will be published in the February 2015 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
Breslow said in addition to consuming alcohol within reasonable limits, individuals who drink should talk to their doctor or pharmacist to check if any of the prescription medications they take interact with alcohol.
“The NIAAA recommends that men have no more than four drinks a day and no more than 14 a week. Women should have no more than three a day and no more than seven a week,” she said.