Does mixing alcohol with medications get you more drunk?

Hi Paul, you recently talked at my school about the effects of alcohol and how long it takes to get out of your system. I was wondering what are the effects of alcohol on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications? Does using these types of medication cause alcohol to stay in your system any longer and do they amplify the effects of alcohol?

Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications should only be taken when prescribed by a doctor. Using either medication on their own can cause a range of problems including, in extreme situations, death by overdose. When you drink alcohol at the same time this dramatically increases the risk of something going wrong.

Anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications do not cause alcohol to stay in your system any longer. Understanding the interaction between the types of medications and alcohol is important.

Anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications affect the body in different ways.

The most commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications in Australia are benzodiazepines (also known as minor tranquillisers or 'benzos') and are classified as 'depressants' (i.e., drugs that 'slow down' the central nervous system). Examples include diazepam, temazepam, nitrazepam and oxazepam. These are prescribed to help people with anxiety or sleep problems. The effects may last from a few hours to 12 hours or even longer, depending on the dose and type of drug taken. Using benzodiazepines at the same time as other depressants - such as alcohol, GHB, heroin and methadone - is extremely dangerous. It can cause loss of consciousness, breathing problems, coma and death.

The situation with anti-depressant medications and alcohol is more complex due to the availability of different types of anti-depressants. Drinking alcohol while taking these medications, however, is generally not advised. Even in small amounts, alcohol can affect concentration and coordination, cause drowsiness and dizziness and lead to injuries and road traffic accidents. It is also important to note that drinking alcohol and taking anti-depressants at the same time can also make depression worse.

Combining alcohol with monoamine-oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) anti-depressants is especially risky. This is because a substance called tyramine, often found in alcoholic drinks, can cause serious side-effects if taken with MAOIs, including a sudden and dangerous rise in blood pressure.  Speak to your GP or pharmacist if you're not sure what type of anti-depressant you're taking and don't know whether you should avoid alcohol.

It is always a good idea to ask your GP or pharmacist about how alcohol interacts with prescribed and over the counter medications. If the doctor has known you for a long time, they may not even think about the possibility of you drinking and prescribe you something that could be particularly risky. If you want to continue to drink and need to take medication, your GP may be able to find a safer alternative.

There are some people who try to push the boundaries to see what will happen if they intentionally combine medications with alcohol or, as you say in your question, to 'amplify the effects of alcohol'. This is extremely dangerous. There is no effective advice that can be provided to reduce risks other than 'please don't do it'.

First published: January 2018