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Overdose deaths involving prescription drugs have quadrupled over the past two decades, with nearly 200,000 Americans losing their lives because of a fatal prescription drug overdose between 1999 and 2015. Alcohol must be factored into these statistics, when you consider that over 40% of Americans admit to drinking alcohol and also taking prescription medications, which could be a fatal concoction.
You don't have to be a frequent alcohol and prescription drug abuser to experience a fatal overdose. In fact, someone with a low tolerance to alcohol and prescription drugs could be more prone to an overdose. Individuals who abuse drugs, prescription drugs and alcohol regularly are of course at a higher risk of a fatal overdose.
There was a study conducted within the past few years of emergency department visits in 13 states involving prescription drugs and alcohol. The study found that alcohol was a factor in nearly 19% of visits involving prescription opioids and nearly 28% involving benzodiazepines. The study also found that alcohol was also a factor in over 22% of opioid-related deaths and 21.4% of benzodiazepine-related deaths. It's safe to say, that alcohol is a factor in nearly HALF of the deaths involving prescription medications in this country.
If someone is legitimately prescribed a drug for anxiety, stress, or pain relief, their physician will usually explain to them that consuming alcohol while taking these medications is contraindicated. Usually. This is particularly true for benzodiazepines. The reason being, alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids each impair cognitive function and are depressants. Even someone with a legitimate prescription of Xanax may drink more than they should, but merely because they are experiencing the impaired cognitive functioning caused by the Xanax. This could lead to a fatal overdose even in someone who is generally tolerant to both Xanax and higher levels of alcohol.
Mixing prescription medications together with alcohol can depress breathing, heart rate and other important body functions crucial for sustaining life. For example a common prescription pain killer such as oxycodone is a central nervous system depressant, and when taken with alcohol can slow a person's breathing to the point that it stops. There are other factors to consider however, like the secondary ingredients in certain prescription pain killers such as acetaminophen. Popular brand names include Vicodin, Percocet, Lortab, Fioricet, and Roxicet. It takes about 4,000mg of acetaminophen in a single day to disrupt healthy liver function. Any opioid drug containing acetaminophen is one which should never be mixed with alcohol, as both drugs will be being processed by the liver. The problem is that there are prescription pain pills which contain as much as 750mg of acetaminophen per pill. Individuals who overdose experience hepatic toxicity, because their bodies simply cannot process this much at one time. Acetaminophen is the leading cause of acute liver failure in the U.S.
Benzodiazepines and opioid pain killers are the biggest culprits in fatal overdose deaths, but other prescription medications can also be a problem when combined with alcohol. Antidepressants are prescribed for patients with mood and other mental health disorders, and combining alcohol and antidepressants can increase the incidence of suicidal thoughts, feelings of hopelessness and can also lead to an accidental overdose. Prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin can be a problem when mixed with alcohol which is a depressant. What happens here is the person could feel very awake, alert and energetic from the stimulant drug, while completely ignoring the amount of alcohol consumed and its depressant effects in the body. Their drinking could reach toxic and fatal levels without them even realizing it.
Prescription drugs and alcohol can affect every person differently, and factors such as age and sex need to be taken into consideration. A woman's Blood Alcohol Concentration will be higher than a man's when drinking the same amount of alcohol, because their bodies contain less water than a male body. This puts women at a higher risk of liver damage and fatal drug and alcohol overdoses. Recent statistics indicate that overdose deaths among women have increased by 400 percent since 1999, particularly among those abusing prescription opioids. So while males do show higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, women show higher rates of fatal consequences.
As we age, our bodies become less able to break down alcohol, drugs and other toxins. So, when an elderly individual consumes alcohol and prescription drugs, these substances remain in their system longer and affect them longer. The fact that older Americans and the elderly are more likely to be prescribed drugs which should not be taken with alcohol essentially puts them at a higher risk of fatal overdose. A recent study found that males in their 40s and 50s who were prescribed drugs for legitimate pain are dying of fatal drug overdoses at extremely high rates for example.
Just because someone has a legitimate prescription doesn't make them any less likely to abuse their drug, and abuse it along with alcohol for a fatal concoction. Because prescriptions drugs are not being ethically prescribed and administered in this country, it falls on the consumer to be diligent and responsible about it. And when someone needs help for a substance abuse problem involving a prescription drug and alcohol, it must be treated as any other serious drug problem would in an effective drug rehab program that provides a full spectrum of services.