Alcohol and prescription medication

Almost all of us will, at some point, have to take a course of medication prescribed by a doctor.

The medication prescribed by a doctor might be a short course of antibiotics or something we take for years to manage a long-term condition. Here, we look at what we all need to be aware of if we’re taking prescription medications and drinking.

Possible problems from drinking when you’re taking medication

There are a few problems that alcohol can cause when you’re on a course of medication:

  • Alcohol may stop the medication from working so well
  • Alcohol might make the side-effects of your medicine worse or make them more likely to happen
  • The mix of alcohol and your medicine may make you sleepy or slow your reactions, which could leave you unable to drive to undertake other tasks that need concentration. This is particularly true of prescription-only painkillers such as dihydrocodeine, gabapentin, tramadol, morphine and pethidine
  • The medicine might make you more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, meaning you become more drunk more quickly. Some people might like that idea in theory, but it’s very difficult to control and the chances of becoming unwell or having an accident are high
  • Both paracetamol and alcohol can damage the liver if taken in excess, so it’s worth asking your pharmacist about this, particularly if you’ve ever had any liver problems

Your doctor or pharmacist may advise you to avoid alcohol if you’re taking medicines that affect the brain or nervous system, thin your blood, alter your blood pressure, or cause low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia)

The medicines you should never mix with alcohol

  • The antibiotics metronidazole and tinidazole
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) antidepressants
  • Disulfiram, which is used to treat alcohol dependency (alcoholism)

The antibiotics linezolid and doxycycline can also react badly to alcohol, and so you need to take care with them and seek advice from your doctor or pharmacist.

Always read the label

Prescription medicines usually come with an explanatory leaflet in the box, explaining things like side-effects and reasons you might need to stop taking the medicine. There will also be advice on whether you need to avoid taking other medicines at the same time and whether you need to avoid alcohol.

Be aware that any medication you’re taking may be labelled with its brand name more prominently than its chemical name, so it’s worth finding out exactly what type of medicine you are taking.

Ask your pharmacist

Pharmacists know medicines inside-out and will be able to explain to you what you should and shouldn’t do.

If you are collecting your medicine from your local pharmacy, or someone is collecting them for you, that’s probably the best time to ask whether you can drink whilst taking it.

Pharmacists know medicines inside-out and will be able to explain to you what you should and shouldn’t do. Many pharmacies now have a private consulting room where you can talk through any questions you have about the medicines you’re taking.