Painkillers and alcohol are some of the most commonly mixed drugs both intentionally and unintentionally. The abuse of painkillers or alcohol on their own is dangerous. But when combined, it can result in dangerous and potentially lethal side effects. Painkillers are commonly prescribed for a number of reasons such as an injury, chronic pain, or post-surgery aftercare. They can be very addictive, especially if misused. The issue becomes even more serious when alcohol is involved.
Many people disregard or even ignore the recommendation to avoid drinking while taking prescription painkillers. This often leads to unintended side effects and other negative consequences. Others combine the two on purpose, with the intent of achieving a high.
Types of Painkillers Commonly Combined with Alcohol
The most common painkiller and alcohol combination involves opiate-based prescription drugs. These include oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl, methadone, and buprenorphine. However, there are also non-opioid prescription painkillers, that can cause similar interactions.
The painkiller and alcohol combination is not limited to just prescription painkillers. Street drugs, such as heroin, produce the same effects.
Over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol, NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen), and aspirin, can also be mixed with alcohol. Although this often qualifies under unintentional mixing, this can be just as dangerous.
Effects of Mixing Painkillers and Alcohol
People who start abusing painkillers and alcohol usually chase the opiate high. The intoxicating effects of the combination produce a feeling of euphoria and relaxation or sleepiness. If the person is in pain, they will feel an intensified relief from it.
However, there are many unpleasant side effects from combining the two. These include:
- Poor judgement and confusion
- Memory loss
- Sexual dysfunction
- Severe sedation
- Difficulty breathing
Painkiller and alcohol side effects extend to non-opiate varieties as well. Even a seemingly harmless painkiller such as ibuprofen can result in irritation to the gut.
Why It’s Dangerous to Mix Painkillers and Alcohol
With severe or long-term abuse, there are more dramatic consequences than the side effects listed above. Both painkillers and alcohol are considered depressant drugs, meaning they slow down the brain and body functions.
When taken together, they amplify each other’s effects more than double. Because of this, the risk of side-effects or an overdose is considerably elevated when the two are taken together. If the painkiller is a time-release pill, it can be much worse. Even a small drink can cause a rapid release of the full dose into the body.
Organ damage is likely to occur with repeated abuse of painkillers and alcohol. The liver is one of the main organs prone to damage from this. However, other organs, including the heart, brain, kidneys, pancreas, and respiratory system, can be damaged as well.
The respiratory system is notably depressed by the mix of opioid-based painkillers and alcohol. Because of this, oxygen deprivation is a leading cause of the damage, especially to the brain. With chronic abuse, a person will often develop symptoms such as depression, mood swings, or psychosis. They’re also likely to experience mental impairment including slowed reaction time, confusion, and memory loss.
Memory loss is a very prominent problem with the painkiller and alcohol combination. Both drugs interfere with your memory, especially when taken in large amounts. Memory loss is also intensified because the combination blocks one’s emotional reaction, particularly to pain. When emotions are blocked, the brain fails to retain memories. Due to all this, over time, it is not unusual for a person to experience regular blackouts.
Overdose on Painkillers and Alcohol
Of course, overdose is the number one danger when it comes to mixing painkillers and alcohol. This is becoming a more common occurrence in many countries. Signs of an overdose from painkillers and alcohol are:
- Constricted pupils
- Clammy skin
- Drop in body temperature (hypothermia)
- Confusion/mental impairment
- Vision impairment
- Poor circulation (blue fingers or lips)
- Irregular or slow breathing
- Extreme fatigue
Signs of Painkiller and Alcohol Addiction
Addiction is another likely possibility when painkillers and alcohol are repeatedly abused. Unfortunately, because painkillers are often prescribed, people don’t often notice that they have a problem until it’s too late. It can be especially difficult to spot a functioning alcoholic or drug user because it is easy for them to deny they have a problem when they can still function normally.
Whether a person is abusing painkillers alone or abusing both painkillers and alcohol, there are some behaviours you can look out for that may signify a potential problem. These include:
- Trying to acquire extra prescriptions
- “Losing” a prescription as an attempt to get more
- Stealing or borrowing medication from friends/family
- Denial or defensiveness when confronted
You can also look for general signs of painkiller and alcohol misuse such as:
- Memory loss and blackouts
- Decreased appetite
- Mood swings, depression or anxiety
- Increased fatigue
- Appearance of intoxication (slurred speech, impaired mobility)
If you suspect an addiction to painkillers and alcohol, you should seek treatment without delay. Both drugs can be very dangerous if misused for a long time, and treatment can become more complicated.
A suitably qualified inpatient rehab is recommended for several reasons. With painkiller and alcohol addiction, you should look for a medically managed facility with a capability or treating dual diagnosis as well.
Addiction treatment for either painkillers, especially opiate-based painkillers, or alcohol requires more involvement than some other drugs. Largely, this is because the detoxification from either is not pleasant and usually needs medical supervision. Usually, a patient will need to slowly taper off their dose of both over time. With opiate and alcohol detoxification, going “cold turkey” can be life-threatening.
Someone with a painkiller and alcohol addiction needs to be treated for two separate addictions. It is also likely that the person has a secondary medical issue, such as chronic pain or psychological distress, which prompted them to start taking painkillers in the first place. Without appropriate therapy to address either or both issues, the person may be in danger of relapse after treatment.
Get Help Now
Castle Craig Hospital understands all the necessary aspects of treatment for painkiller and alcohol addiction. Because detox can be dangerous, patients are constantly monitored by medical staff around the clock. If necessary, appropriate medication can be given to ease withdrawal.
Each patient undergoes a full assessment upon admission to create a customised treatment plan which will address all issues relating to addiction and dual diagnosis.
Because the patient may be dealing with chronic pain, Castle Craig provides a pain-management programme that helps the patient learn to address their pain with alternative methods. This includes learning coping techniques via psychotherapy, physical therapy, and complementary therapies such as acupuncture or yoga.
Painkiller and alcohol addiction is a serious matter that needs appropriate attention and treatment. As with any drug addiction, it is always better to address the problem as soon as possible. Not only can this make treatment easier, but it will also help prevent long-term health damage.
Page published: May 14, 2019. Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked January 25, 2022