Alcohol and drug mixing on the rise

Yesterday I was interviewed on 89.7 WUWM (NPR) about mixing prescription drugs with alcohol.  I think this was prompted by recent deaths in our area involving the prescription pain killer, Suboxone.  Some media reports suggest that there’s something magically lethal about Suboxone or that something tragic happens when this drug mixes with alcohol in your system.  The medical term that describes that multiplying effect is synergism, which means that each individual substance (drug + alcohol) contributes to toxicity, but that the effect of the two is greater than simply combining each substance’s contribution – that the whole effect is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

The scientific data on synergism with these types of medications is really mixed and can be hard to interpret.  I was also asked whether there was some special effect of alcohol on young adults, making them more susceptible to this sort of thing.  We need to be careful not to let the meaning get lost in the message: prescription pain killers can reduce pain. They also kill people.

The sad reality is that prescription medications are available like candy in America today. Peoples’ comfort level with prescription meds has them dosing themselves with their own or others’ prescription medicine, as if they were simply taking Tylenol for a headache.  Prescription opioids are every bit as dangerous as heroin. In fact, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America summarizes, “Last year, more teens got high on prescription medication than on cocaine, meth, and ecstasy combined.”

Tragic as our local cases are, this problem is accelerating everywhere in America.  Accidental self-poisoning is now the second leading cause of unintentional death in the U.S., and prescription medications now kill more Americans than cocaine or heroin.  This epidemic isn’t just about Suboxone.  It isn’t about synergism, youth, or individual susceptibility.  It isn’t about our heartbreaking recent losses or about Heath Ledger. It’s about our society’s growing misperception that somehow prescription medications are safe and that they can be appropriately dosed by anyone who can reach the medicine cabinet.  Tragically, we’re seeing firsthand that this isn’t the case.

–David Gummin, MD, is medical director of Wisconsin Poison Center. The Poison Center is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to answer questions toll-free 1-800-222-1222.