Alcohol and medicines

Taking some medicines with alcohol can cause problems. In most cases, it can increase the risk of side effects or change the effect the medicine has.

On this page, you can find the following information:

How does alcohol affect some medicines? 

Alcohol interacts with many medicines, including prescribed and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and herbal remedies. Alcohol can affect the way some medicines are absorbed by your body and broken down in your liver.

If you drink alcohol regularly, and especially if you drink excessive amounts, your liver produces more enzymes to get rid of the alcohol more quickly. These enzymes may also break down the medicine you are taking so it no longer has the same effect.

Alcohol affects the way your brain works and slows down your body’s reaction times and responses. Some types of medicines also affect the way your brain works, and if you’re drinking alcohol these effects may be increased. 

Alcohol can increase the risk of side effects such as:
  • sleepiness, drowsiness, dizziness and falls
  • nausea and vomiting
  • headaches
  • changes in blood pressure and blood glucose
  • mood changes
  • loss of coordination (which can cause accidents)

Mixing alcohol and some medicines may also increase the risk of complications such as liver problems, stomach problems, heart problems and depression. 

Read more about alcohol and its effects

Who is at greatest risk of harmful effects?

Women, older people and those with liver problems and some long-term conditions are at greatest risk of harmful effects. You are also at greater risk if you drink a lot of alcohol, are malnourished or are taking a lot of different medicines.

In older adults especially, alcohol use may increase your risk of falls, serious injury and disability related to balance problems. Older adults don't metabolise alcohol as quickly as younger adults do, so alcohol stays in your system longer and has a greater risk of interacting with medicines. 

Alcohol use also may trigger or worsen certain medical conditions.

How can I avoid problems with alcohol and medicines?

Always read the label of your medicine, including OTC and herbal medicines. If your medicine has a warning label to avoid alcohol, then it's best to avoid drinking alcohol while you are taking the medicine. 

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are worried about the effects of alcohol with your medicines. Make sure you tell them all the medicines you are taking, including OTC, prescription and herbal medicines.

If in doubt, don’t drink alcohol. If you can't find the information you need or you can't contact a health professional, it's best to avoid alcohol until you can be certain that it won’t affect your medicine. 

Learn more

The following pages have more information on medicine and alcohol:

Diabetes and alcohol
Medicines and driving
Medicines and falls risk

References

  1. Harmful interactions – mixing alcohol with medicines National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 27 Aug 2020