Understanding the Dangers of Combining Drugs and Alcohol

dangers of mixing drugs and alcohol

On their own, alcohol and drugs are already very powerful substances. When you combine them, their effects become even stronger and more unpredictable. To stay safe, it is essential to understand how alcohol mixes with various drugs and avoid dangerous combinations.

Why Do People Mix Drugs with Alcohol?

There are all sorts of reasons why people combine drugs and alcohol. In some cases, it is simply a combination of circumstances. A person might want to enjoy an alcoholic beverage but also have a health condition they need to take medication for. Since many people view alcohol as separate from drugs, they may not even recognize that they’re mixing problematic substances together.

In other circumstances, alcohol and drug mixing may be accidental. Especially when taking illicit drugs, there is a chance that the substance has been combined with something else. For example, a pill sold to you as ecstasy might actually contain methamphetamines. When you don’t know exactly what drug you are taking, it is easy to combine multiple items.

Another reason people mix drugs with alcohol is to intensify their effects. A person may try to combine alcohol with their drugs to get higher or stay high for longer. Some people even purposefully mix drugs with alcohol to get the unusual side effects of combining drugs. Furthermore, alcohol is a judgment inhibitor, so many people get drunk and then decide to try other substances. This is particularly true for so-called party drugs like cocaine.

The Effects of Mixing Drugs and Alcohol

Unfortunately, any purposeful or accidental combination of drugs and alcohol can be dangerous. The problem occurs because many substances interact with each other in unexpected ways. Many substances potentiate each other which means they greatly increase the effects of the substance. Instead of just stacking their effects, they can multiply. This can cause dangerous overdoses to happen even with very small amounts of certain substances.

There can also be many unexpected side effects. Due to the way substances combine, you might not just get normal symptoms of drug and alcohol use. Instead, you can end up with very bizarre and unusual symptoms. Depending on the substance you take, you might end up with paranoia, mental delusions, intense vomiting, or other unpleasant and unexpected side effects.

The final effect to be aware of is the effect on your body. When your body is busy processing one substance, adding another can be dangerous. It can overwork your organs and lead to physical damage. The most common types of damage are liver and kidney, but you can also harm your brain, stomach, or heart. Even something “harmless” like a beer and a Tylenol can cause severe and lasting damage to your liver.

Mixing Alcohol and Medications

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that prescription medications are harmless. Even if your doctor told you to take medication, it might not be safe to take with alcohol. Always listen to your doctor’s instructions closely and read your prescription carefully. Here are some of the types of prescription medications that mix very poorly with alcohol.

  • Xanax
  • Valium
  • Ritalin
  • Adderall
  • Concerta
  • Vicodin
  • OxyContin
  • Codeine
  • Percocet
  • Tylenol
  • Klonopin
  • Robitussin
  • Aleve
  • Ambien
  • Lunesta

Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive, and many other, less commonly used prescription drugs are still dangerous to take with alcohol. Any time you are on prescription medication, talk to your doctor before consuming alcohol.

Mixing Alcohol and Illegal Drugs

Combining alcohol with illicit drugs can be just as risky as mixing it with prescription medications. In fact, it is often more dangerous because illegal drugs are often tainted with other substances or mislabeled. Typically, illegal drugs are categorized as either stimulants or depressants. Depending on the type you take, you can experience a lot of very risky, potentially fatal effects.

Depressants are drugs that slow down your thought processes, breathing, heart rate, and other functions. Alcohol is technically a depressant already, so its effects stack dangerously with depressants. Opioids and alcohol are one of the riskiest combinations. When you have alcohol with heroin or other opioids, it can slow down your breathing so drastically that you stop breathing altogether. Benzodiazepines are another very dangerous class to combine with alcohol. They can slow down central nervous system activity enough to lead to a coma.

Stimulants are drugs that speed up your heart rate and brain activity, but they don’t actively cancel out the depressant effects of alcohol. Instead, stimulants are risky because they mask the effects of alcohol. When people take stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamines, they often feel at first. However, they are still greatly overdoing it, so the excess alcohol can cause an overdose or permanent organ damage.

The Dangers of Polysubstance Use

As you can see, the primary dangers of mixing substances are that you can experience overdoses, excessive organ damage, or unexpected side effects. To better understand your risks, it is helpful to look at the subject’s statistics.

The CDC defines polysubstance use as any time when a person takes two or more substances within the same time period. On average, roughly 125 people lose their lives to polysubstance use each day. Half of all drug overdose deaths are due to polysubstance use. Statistically speaking, alcohol is most likely to lead to a fatal overdose when combined with opioids or benzodiazepines.

Even if a person does not overdose, alcohol still leads to various dangers. Research indicates that alcohol abuse is more likely to lead to other types of substance abuse. A person who is regularly mixing substances can often end up dealing with dangerous levels of addiction. Almost a quarter of all people with opioid addiction also have an alcohol use addiction.

Side Effects

Of course, most people focus on major problems like overdose or organ failure when they discuss mixing drugs and alcohol. However, even if you don’t experience life-threatening risks, you’re likely to have some unpleasant issues.

The most common side effects of combining substances are mental confusion and poor coordination. This can result in all sorts of inconvenient and problematic events. At best, combinations like alcohol and Ambien can lead to embarrassing stories about wandering around nude or picking a fight you don’t remember. At worst, it can lead to dangerous things like driving under the influence or falling down stairs. Roughly 30 percent of nonfatal injuries at home are linked to substance use, and polysubstance use greatly increases the risk of injury.

If you’re mixing prescription medication with alcohol, it is also important to recognize that your medications might not work properly anymore. Alcohol can keep some medications, like antibiotics, from doing their job properly. This means that if you do not quit drinking, it may be impossible to cure your health issues.


Polysubstance abuse is one of the key signs of a substance use disorder. Whether you’re unable to stop drinking alcohol while you get healthcare or are purposefully mixing substances to get high, it can indicate some problematic approaches to substance use. Not only does it put your health at risk, but it also makes it hard to manage your daily responsibilities and maintain your mental health. Therefore, it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible.

Treating polysubstance use requires a broad approach. Depending on which substances you use, you may need medical care to detox from them safely. If you have underlying medical problems, you’ll need treatment that helps you safely manage your conditions while reducing substance abuse. You can also benefit from various therapies designed to help address addiction. Options like group therapy, 12-step programs, and cognitive behavioral therapy can help you identify substance use triggers and find healthier ways of managing them.

If you want compassionate, effective substance use care, turn to Long Island Treatment Center. Our addiction treatment center uses evidence-based treatments to help our clients overcome substance use. We work with you to draft an individualized treatment plan that addresses your unique needs. Since we offer a broad range of partial hospitalization, outpatient, and aftercare programs, it’s easy to find a program that suits your lifestyle. Contact us today to learn more about our services.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Long Island Treatment Center

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