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The Dangers of Mixing Medications, Drugs, and Alcohol


Tom Petty


When rock musician Tom Petty died in late 2017, the cause of his death was found to be an accidental drug overdose caused by a combination of several pain medications, including Fentanyl, oxycodone and a generic form of Xanax. He had also taken a generic form of Restoril to help him sleep, and a generic form of Celexa for depression.

While all the medications Petty had taken were obtained legally with prescriptions from medical professionals, the lesson to be learned is that mixing powerful prescription medications can be a recipe for disaster that can end in injury or death.

In addition, mixing prescription medications with alcohol or illegal drugs can be risky. Even over-the-counter remedies to relieve pain, fight allergies, or clear up a head cold can be harmful when they interact with other medications you may be taking.

“The best approach is to ask your doctor or pharmacist about potential interactions whenever you start a new prescription,” says Rick Pescatore, D.O., an emergency medicine physician at Crozer Health. “As a patient, it’s extremely difficult to anticipate how one drug will interact with another.”

Why do people mix medications?

Rick Pescatore DO

Rick Pescatore, D.O.

“Mixing medications can amplify the good feelings people get from some medications, but this practice can be very dangerous,” says Pescatore. “In other cases, patients may inadvertently mix drugs if they are taking medications for multiple health issues.”

Having multiple health issues that require medication is a fact of life in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 90 percent of people over the age of 65 use at least one medication every week. More than 40 percent use five or more medications per week and 10 percent use a whopping 12 or more per week. It’s easy to see how mixing medications becomes a real concern, both for doctors and patients.

Doctors will do everything they can to ensure that you don’t mix medications that could interact with each other. So-called “drug-drug interactions” can amplify the effects of a drug in your system, leading to an overdose. Or, the interaction may reduce the effectiveness or completely block the action of one of the drugs, which means you won’t be getting its therapeutic effects.

To avoid possible drug-drug interactions:

  • Always tell your doctor about every medication you take, even supplements, over-the-counter medicine, and vitamins.
  • If you see a new doctor or specialist, make sure they have a list of your current medications.
  • If a specialist prescribes a new medication, tell your primary doctor about it.
  • Always use the same pharmacy so the pharmacist can identify possible interactions.
  • If you must use a different pharmacy, bring a list of your current medications with you.

What about mixing with alcohol and illegal drugs?

When it comes to taking medication with alcohol, always read the label on the bottle of your medication. If you should not drink with your medication, it will be clearly stated.

“Some medications, such as pain relievers, will be amplified by the effects of alcohol,” says Pescatore. “This can be very dangerous, since it can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular problems that could be fatal.”

Even seemingly harmless medications such as antibiotics can interact badly with alcohol. You may experience increased side effects such as nausea, dizziness, and an upset stomach.

“You shouldn’t use illegal drugs, but if you do, you definitely shouldn’t mix them with prescription medications or another illegal drug,” says Pescatore. “The effects are unpredictable and many overdose deaths occur when people use more than one drug at a time.”

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