Many people who use prescription medications assume that they’re safe no matter what because a doctor prescribed them. This is not necessarily the case. In particular, mixing medications with alcohol or other substances is a risky idea.
As an example, mixing alcohol and Xanax can be dangerous because of the way the drugs act in the body and interact with each other. Understanding how Xanax and alcohol produce their effects can make it clear why these two substances are dangerous in combination.
Xanax and the Body
Xanax is one of a number of drugs called benzodiazepines, sedatives, or tranquilizers. These drugs act on the nervous system to slow the movement of messages through the brain, resulting in a sense of calm and relaxation. Because of this nervous system depression, Xanax and drugs like it are commonly used to treat conditions like:
- Panic disorder
- Mood disorders
The behavior of Xanax on the body can cause some side effects, described by Medical News Today, including:
- Memory loss
- Slowed heart rate and breathing
- Confusion or inability to focus
Xanax is a powerful medication that can change brain chemistry and behavior quickly. As a result of its influence on various brain pathways, tolerance and dependence on the drug can occur quickly, as described by the Ashton Manual. In many people, this can lead to the inability to function normally without the drug, or addiction.
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Alcohol Side Effects and Risks
As most people are aware, alcohol is a recreational beverage that induces feelings of relaxation, euphoria, and lowered inhibition. It is most often consumed to enhance social situations and meals. It is widely available and generally considered to be safe, aside from some of the physical symptoms it can cause, including:
- Delayed responses to stimulus
- Lack of ability to focus
- Clumsiness or loss of coordination
- Slowed breathing and heart rate
- Unconsciousness, short-term memory loss, or blackouts
As described by Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, alcohol has a stimulant effect as well, but this does not overcome the sedative effect. These effects in combination often lead the person to engage in risky behavior while using alcohol. The sedation of alcohol can cause the individual to struggle with tasks or have delayed responses to risky situations, such as driving a car. On top of all of this, alcohol can also be abused and result in addiction, or alcoholism, which can take control of the person’s life and make it difficult to function normally.
Why Mixing Xanax and Alcohol Is Dangerous
Both of these substances have a profound effect on the body and brain on their own, but in combination, their effects can be magnified. In other words, using two strong nervous system depressants can increase the suppression of body functions profoundly, creating a major risk to the individual’s health and safety.
For example, the biggest risk of mixing Xanax and alcohol has to do with slowed breathing. As reported by the CDC in the West Journal of Emergency Medicine, combining nervous system depressants like Xanax with alcohol can lead to an overdose response where breathing stops completely, leading to unconsciousness and death without intervention. Even if breathing doesn’t cease, the person may end up diminishing the amount of oxygen going to the brain, a condition called hypoxia that can cause brain damage.
Other effects can make it more likely for the person to suffer an accident if engaged in risk-taking behavior or lead to an increased chance of blackout and memory loss. As such, the magnification of side effects when taking Xanax with alcohol pose multiple serious risks.
Signs of Polydrug Abuse: Xanax and Alcohol
Unfortunately, there are several reasons that people might choose to take alcohol and Xanax together. As mentioned above, some people don’t realize there are risks when taking prescription medications with alcohol. Even more, there are those who abuse alcohol and Xanax together specifically for the enhanced response, either as a way to self-treat symptoms or enhance the action of the Xanax, or as a way to get high. Either of these is considered polydrug abuse.
There are ways to recognize when someone is abusing Xanax and alcohol together, including:
- Pills being used faster than expected
- Missing or stolen pills
- Severe impairment of motor function, breathing, or response to stimuli
- Memory loss or blackouts
In addition, a person abusing these substances together may show signs of addiction that include:
- Being unable to stop or control use of alcohol while using Xanax, or vice versa
- Conflict with loved ones over using the medication and still drinking
- Fixation on getting and using pills and alcohol, and excessive time spent recovering
- Withdrawal symptoms when the substances are decreased or stopped
- Cravings for both substances
The more symptoms the person shows, the greater the risk of abuse or addiction to one or both substances.
Withdrawal from Xanax and Alcohol
One important risk of both Xanax and alcohol is withdrawal. For a person who has been abusing large quantities of either substance, there are severe risks that go along with stopping use. These risks can be complicated when the individual is taking both medications. Withdrawal syndromes for both substances can include:
Many of these symptoms can be severe enough to cause injury or death. As a result, for an individual abusing these substances separately or together, it is vital to work with an experienced professional who understands and knows how to manage withdrawal risks.
Legitimate Prescriptions and Alcohol
A study from Radars Systems indicates that people often have a perception that prescription drugs are safer than illicit drugs. It is important to note that just because a doctor has prescribed a medication doesn’t mean that the medication doesn’t have some risks. Mixing medications and alcohol is generally discouraged for this reason. Even if the medication doesn’t have a warning label about using it with alcohol, caution should be exercised, and the individual should ask the prescribing doctor about the risks before attempting to use alcohol.
The doctor should also be aware of a person’s alcohol use before prescribing Xanax. If the person already demonstrates signs of existing or potential addiction to alcohol or otherwise, it is risky to prescribe Xanax to begin with. Xanax itself is highly addictive, especially with regular use for chronic conditions.
What to Do for Xanax and Alcohol Abuse
When polydrug abuse involving Xanax and alcohol is suspected, it is important to get help to reduce the risk of overdose and other effects of using these substances together. One path that demonstrates a solid ability to help people recover from Xanax and alcohol abuse is to find an addiction treatment center that is experienced in treating polydrug abuse. Professionals in these programs understand the challenges of helping clients abstain from both substances, considering the various triggers and life circumstances that may have led to this polydrug abuse to begin with.
These treatment programs can help the individual through:
- Access to safe detox that minimizes dangerous withdrawal symptoms
- Personal and group therapy
- Family therapy
- Peer or 12-Step support for motivation and encouragement
- Nutrition and exercise to help regulate brain chemistry and mood
- Understanding triggers and how to avoid them
With research-based, experienced support, the individual has a better chance of safely stopping use of both substances and completing treatment, making it more likely that the person will have a future without dangerous polydrug use involving alcohol and Xanax.