Alcohol and Medications – Are You Making Smart Choices?

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The holidays are here and many of us will be attending celebrations where alcohol is served. If you take medications and drink occasionally (or even regularly), you face a dilemma. Should you take your medications when you drink?

What’s the smart choice?

My patients are smart. They make health choices based on advice they get from health professionals, the things they believe, the things they read and things they hear from other people.

More and more patients are researching and deciding for themselves how best to manage their health. I am a health professional who fully supports this, but I want to make sure patients are using high quality information to make their choices.

When they don’t talk to me about their habits and behaviors, they sometimes mistakenly make health choices that seem smart but might not be. One of those mistakes is skipping their medications whenever they take a drink. Let’s see why what seems like the smart thing to do might not be.

How alcohol and medications interact.

Alcohol and most (but not all) medications are processed through the liver. If the liver gets overloaded – by too much alcohol or a certain types of medications – then either liver damage can occur or medications will not have their desired effect.

While it may seem smart to not mix alcohol with medications, is it smart to not take needed meds because you are going to have a couple of drinks?

The devil is in the details.

It’s true there that are medications which should never be mixed with alcohol. But the majority will still be effective even if you have a few drinks. Here is a link to a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism webpage about specific medications and their interactions with alcohol. If you are on meds for chronic diseases and also drink, please check this webpage out.

As you can see each medication must be looked at individually. Many meds can be taken safely and still be effective in people who drink alcohol moderately. Speak to your health provider about your particular medications and be candid about the amount and frequency of your alcohol consumption.

How smart is it to not take your medications?

Here is my concern and the reason for writing this post. It is my observation after 20+ years of clinical practice that patients will use any excuse not to take their medications as prescribed.

Either they read about a side effect, or hear something in the news, or have a friend (or even a stranger) tell them something that scares them, or they decide its unsafe because they are going to have a few drinks and – poof – a medication therapy that’s been carefully considered and prescribed goes out the window right along with its beneficial effects.

The problem with this is that we live in a world where diseases are silent and have no symptoms. So when medications are skipped – or stopped altogether – there is nothing to signal the patient of the harm that’s being done until some crisis occurs that lands them in the hospital or some catastrophic event takes their life. Then it’s too late.

Let’s get real.

When my patients ask if they are allowed to drink while on a medication I’m always torn about what to say. I tell them “technically” its best if they don’t drink at all while taking any medications. But I also live in the real world, and I know that many people enjoy a little wine with dinner or a few drinks now and then.

I do not want to patients to abandon their medications just because they drink. If there is an interaction between alcohol and a medication that will make them sick, I warn them about it.

But for the vast majority of patients who need lifetime medications for conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, I counsel moderation in all things. Unless you are an alcoholic (and perhaps even if you are) you are at greater risk off your meds than on them.

If you have a problem with alcohol, by all means seek help with it. But do not abandon your medications just because you drink. Talk to your health professional – either your nurse practitioner, doctor or pharmacist – if you have any question about a specific medication and its interaction with alcohol.

But please stay on your meds, OK?

This information is offered for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, prescribe or treat. For that please seek direct care from a health professional.

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