Mixing Alcohol And Opioids: Side Effects, Dangers, And Overdose Risk

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on February 12, 2021

Opioids are commonly abused illicit and prescription drugs. Mixing alcohol with opioids increases the side effects and risks of both drugs, such as overdose. People who abuse opioids and alcohol should seek immediate substance abuse treatment.

Alcohol And Opioids - Polysubstance Abuse - Side Effects

Alcohol and opioid medications should never be combined. Combining these substances increases the dangerous effects involved with the use of each substance.

Both alcohol and opiates slow a person’s breathing rate and can lead to respiratory failure. Respiratory failure can occur since both drugs work as central nervous system depressants.

When these drugs work together, the respiratory system may be unable to function normally, causing breathing and heart rate irregularities.

Heart rate irregularities caused by combining alcohol and prescription opioids like oxycodone may lead to a heart attack or stroke.

People suffering from respiratory depression or heart rate irregularities caused by mixing alcohol and opioids will require emergency medical assistance. If left untreated, these adverse side effects may lead to irreversible brain damage, coma, and death.

Side Effects Of Opioid And Alcohol Abuse

Opioids are depressant drugs used to treat severe or chronic pain, such as pain caused by terminal illnesses like cancer. They may also be used as a prescription medication prior to surgery.

Examples of opioids include oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and fentanyl, as well as illicit opioids like heroin.

Many painkillers can safely help individuals manage moderate to severe pain when used within the limits of a prescription.

When opioids are abused, an individual is at high risk for developing opioid use disorder and dependency. This medication activates opioid receptors in the brain, causing euphoric effects and sedation.

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People may quickly become addicted to the medication unknowingly, or after recreationally abusing the drug.
Alcohol abuse also causes adverse side effects. When combined with other drugs, like prescription opioid medications, it can increase the side effects of both substances in dangerous ways.

Side effects of alcohol abuse and opioid drug abuse include:

  • low or high blood pressure
  • heart rate irregularities
  • breathing rate irregularities
  • loss of coordination
  • disinhibition
  • nausea and vomiting
  • loss of consciousness
  • respiratory arrest
  • drug overdose
  • coma

Overdose Risk

Millions of Americans struggle with opioid substance abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 78 people in the United States die from opioid overdoses per day. Reports indicate that many opioid-related deaths involve other substances, such as alcohol.

Taking a single dose of oxycodone, for example, with even a modest amount of alcohol increases the risk of developing life-threatening respiratory depression.

The risk of opioid-related fatalities associated with alcohol consumption and opioid misuse is not limited to people who have a substance abuse disorder.

Even when taking opioid medications safely as prescribed, drug interactions may lead to dangerous adverse reactions when drinking alcohol.

People who abuse opiates and alcohol recreationally may be unaware of the risk of life-threatening adverse effects and overdose when taking these substances together.

Others who take prescription opioids may consume moderate amounts of alcohol after taking the medication. In both cases, fatal outcomes may occur.

Anyone who uses opioid medications should avoid alcohol completely.

Common Alcohol And Opioid Polysubstance Abuse Combinations

Though you shouldn’t drink alcohol while taking opioids or abusing illicit opioids like heroin, many people do.

The following are common polydrug combinations involving alcohol and opiates:

If someone is regularly abusing alcohol and opioids, this increases their risk for not only overdose and side effects, but for developing addiction or dependency.

Alcoholism And Opioid Addiction

Habitually abusing opioid drugs or alcohol can lead to addiction, dependency, and increasing drug tolerances. Drug tolerance may lead an individual to increase both their dose of the opioid and level of alcohol consumption.

When an individual becomes addicted to both substances, they will use them simultaneously. A person with a dual diagnosis may use alcohol or opioids to reduce cravings or withdrawal symptoms of the other substance.

People who abuse both alcohol and opioids are at high risk of respiratory depression, stroke, or heart attack. Habitually combining these two substances is likely to cause a medical emergency.

Substance abuse treatment for individuals who are battling opiate drug use and alcohol addiction may involve treating these disorders separately. People with dual substance use disorders of opiates and alcohol should seek treatment immediately.

Getting Help For Addiction

When a person has both alcohol use disorder and opioid addiction, the risk of developing adverse side effects is likely. Untreated dual substance use disorder of opioids and alcohol may quickly lead to overdose and death.

A person with this type of dual diagnosis may develop chemical tolerance that leads to a dangerous increase in dose and consumption, leading to fatal side effects or severe withdrawal symptoms when stopping use.

It is important that a person who is addicted to alcohol and opioids has access to supportive healthcare to ensure safe detox from these substances. Several treatment options and addiction treatment programs are available on an inpatient and outpatient basis.

Inpatient or residential addiction treatment is often recommended so that an individual can access healthcare, support groups, necessary medical supervision, and medical support during withdrawal and detox.

Addiction treatment for these dual substance use disorders may involve a process of detoxification that includes prescribing substitute medications, such as methadone, buprenorphine (Suboxone), or naltrexone. This can help to reduce the withdrawal symptoms associated with each substance.

If you or a loved one have an alcohol or opioid drug addiction, or if you have any questions about recovery programs, please connect with our treatment center through our helpline today.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on February 12, 2021

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