Two of the most widely abused drugs in the US are alcohol and prescription opioid painkillers like OxyContin. Because they are both widely available, through both legal and illegal means, the combination has led to an increase in overdose deaths and addiction. Polydrug abuse – using two or more substances to get high – is a serious health problem, and it must be addressed via professional treatment.
The Basics of OxyContin and Alcohol
OxyContin is the brand name for a high-dose, time-release prescription oxycodone-based painkiller. It was developed to alleviate pain in those with chronic pain conditions for up to 12 hours. While OxyContin has helped thousands of people who suffer from severe, ongoing pain, it has also become one of the most widely abused opioid drugs in US history.
OxyContin is prescribed in 10, 20, 40, and 80 mg doses, and these pills can, with the oversight of a doctor, be combined in various sizes to relieve serious, long-lasting pain. However, the drug also consistently makes its way to the black market. When the drug is tampered with, the time-release aspects can be bypassed, and the person who takes this dose can experience an immediate, intense euphoria. This also increases the risk of severe, dangerous side effects, and overdose.
The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that OxyContin abuse is extremely common in the US. Over 1 million individuals, ages 12 and older, had abused OxyContin pills at least once in their lifetime; this is because these pills are easy to find in medicine cabinets and on the street.
While alcohol is a legal, recreational substance for people ages 21 and older in the United States, it is also one of the most addictive and widely abused substances available. The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence reports that one in every 12 adults in the US suffers from alcohol abuse or dependence. Several million more binge drink too often, which causes accidents and damage to internal organs. There are 88,000 deaths each year due to alcohol abuse in some form. Death from alcohol consumption is the third lifestyle-related cause of death in the US.
Mixing Opioids and Alcohol Together
Alcohol and opioid drugs are addictive enough substances on their own; taking these two substances together can lead to serious problems and increases the likelihood of addiction. This is one form of polydrug abuse – a dangerous pattern of taking two or more addictive and intoxicating substances together, in order to enhance euphoria or offset negative side effects.
Both OxyContin and alcohol are central nervous system depressants, meaning they both increase one’s sense of pleasure, induce relaxation and sedation, and reduce pain sensations. These two substances act on different pathways in the brain to create these sensations. However, the drugs can enhance the side effects of each other when they are taken together and increase the risk of overdose or alcohol poisoning.
Some people may accidentally consume too much alcohol and OxyContin together. Older adults with chronic pain problems are at high risk of this kind of accident. They are prescribed painkillers like OxyContin, which they only have to take once or twice per day for effective pain management. Prescription painkillers like OxyContin come with warnings not to consume alcohol while taking these prescription medicines, but many people believe “small” amounts of alcohol are safe to consume. Even one or two glasses of wine, or a couple bottles of beer, can lead to serious health consequences.
Alcohol can change how OxyContin is released into the body; the drug may release faster, as alcohol can change how the time-release aspects of the drug are metabolized. This can lead to increased euphoria, sedation, a greater risk for addiction, and an increased risk of breathing problems.
Side Effects from OxyContin and Alcohol
A person who abuses OxyContin can experience various side effects, including:
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting
- Mood swings
- Lightheadedness from blood pressure changes
- Physical weakness
- Dry mouth
- Changes in heart rate
- Chest pain
- Depressed or shallow breathing
Side effects from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol include:
- Lowered inhibitions
- Slurred speech
- Loss of coordination
- Memory problems or loss
- Blacking out
- Difficulty thinking or concentrating
- Breathing trouble
- Damage to liver and kidneys
In combination, these two CNS depressants enhance each other’s effects, especially:
- Drowsiness or somnolence
- Mood changes
- Dizziness and loss of coordination
- Memory problems
- Reduced, depressed, shallow, or irregular breathing
- Changes to heart rate and blood pressure
These problems can all cause long-term damage. Alcohol abuse causes liver damage and sometimes kidney damage. Taking OxyContin recreationally can also cause hepatoxicity, but it is much more likely in combination with alcohol. Liver and renal failure can be difficult to treat, leading to chronic problems or even death.
The combination of alcohol and OxyContin can also lead to overdose. This constitutes a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.
OxyContin and Alcohol Combined Lead to Overdose
Taking OxyContin for nonmedical purposes and combining it with alcohol puts a person at a very high risk of overdose, which can result in death. Both drugs reduce breathing, leading to oxygen deprivation that can cause brain damage. This can then lead to amnesia or a coma. Both substances enhance each other’s effects, so the negative side effects from both appear more rapidly, including overdose symptoms. If a person vomits while they are passed out, it can result in choking on the vomit, and this can lead to death. The combination of substances may also cause damage to the heart because of blood pressure changes.
Many people have died from the combination of alcohol and prescription painkillers. With both alcohol and OxyContin widely available both legally and illegally, the dangerous mixture is rising in prominence.
When a person overdoses on prescription painkillers, emergency medical personnel can use naloxone to temporarily stop the overdose symptoms. This helps the individual get the medical attention they need to survive. Unfortunately, combining opioids and alcohol or other drugs means that naloxone may not work during an overdose. Treating polydrug overdoses is much more difficult. If a person drinks alcohol with OxyContin, and they begin to suffer an overdose, it is very important to call 911 immediately, so they get the medical attention they need. Early treatment is essential for the best chances of survival.
Combining alcohol and OxyContin can increase the euphoria associated with both substances, which means that the combination can be very addictive. The risks of combining these substances are simply too great, and the end result could be serious health damage or death.
In cases of polydrug abuse, medical detox is required, particularly when the substances involved are alcohol and an opioid like OxyContin. Comprehensive treatment should follow withdrawal, ensuring the person gets the therapeutic care they need to achieve recovery.