You should always consult your doctor about whether it is safe to drink alcohol if you are on medication. Depending on what you take and your condition, alcohol can make some medication ineffective and could even lead to dangerous health consequences.
However, for some medications it’s OK to drink within the UK Chief Medical Officers' low risk drinking guidelines. This means no more than 14 units a week, whether you’re male or female, spread evenly over three or more days. Read on to find out more.
Alcohol and antibiotics
You should not drink alcohol with certain types of antibiotics, like metronidazole and tinidazole. This is because they can interfere with the breakdown of alcohol, leading to serious side effects including nausea, vomiting, flushing of the skin, accelerated heart rate, dizziness or drowsiness. Other antibiotics that also interact with alcohol are linezolid and doxycycline so take particular care if you are prescribed these.1
However, for most commonly prescribed antibiotics, such as penicillin and amoxicillin, drinking alcohol, within the low risk drinking guidelines, is unlikely to cause problems.2
Alcohol and painkillers
Drinking small amounts of alcohol with painkillers that can be bought over the counter, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, is unlikely to cause any problems. However, alcohol should be avoided with prescription only painkillers, such as tramadol, gabapentin and codeine. Consuming alcohol alongside these medications can lead to an increased risk of drowsiness and other side effects, such as nausea.3
How alcohol can interfere with medication
There are two main reasons why doctors advise patients not to drink with some medications.
Alcohol can have a sedative effect and, when combined with a medicine that also has a sedative effect (including some antidepressants, antihistamines and sedatives), can result in extreme sleepiness or drowsiness that would impair a person’s ability to drive or operate machinery or induce a very deep sleep and cause difficulty in waking.9
Alcohol and medicines can also interact in the way that they are absorbed and metabolised (broken down) in the body. It is possible that some medicines block the metabolisation of alcohol so that blood alcohol levels are higher than normal after consuming smaller amounts. Heavy alcohol consumption can result in changes in liver function that mean medication may not be absorbed as well as it should and may mean the medication does not work properly or that serious side effects are more likely to be experienced.10
Individual differences in body weight, genetics and lifestyle, can also affect the way that medications may interact with alcohol.
Remember, if you’re taking medication, always check with your doctor or a healthcare professional for their advice on whether you should drink alcohol and let them know if you experience negative effects from drinking while on medication.
Alcohol and the immune system
Heavy drinking may increase vulnerability to viral infections and other illnesses. This is because alcohol has the potential to disrupt immune function. This impaired immunity is not restricted to chronic heavy drinkers. Less frequent episodes of binge drinking can also affect your immune system. Heavy drinking has been linked to a greater inability to fight off upper respiratory tract infections and pneumonia infections. 11