Many people are aware that taking ibuprofen at the same time as alcohol is not always safe, but what are the risks, and when is it dangerous?
Ibuprofen is an over-the-counter medication that people use to reduce pain, inflammation, and fever. It is available under various brand names, such as Advil and Motrin, and in some combination medications for colds and the flu.
Alcohol and ibuprofen can both irritate the lining of the stomach and intestines. Mixing the two can cause side effects that vary in severity from mild to serious depending on the dose and how much alcohol a person ingests.
In this article, we discuss the safety and risks of taking ibuprofen and alcohol together. We also cover other side effects of ibuprofen.
Ibuprofen is usually safe if a person follows a doctor’s instructions and the recommended dosage on the packaging.
According to the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, it is usually safe to use pain relievers, including ibuprofen, when drinking a small amount of alcohol.
However, people can experience mild-to-serious side effects if they take ibuprofen regularly and drink more than a moderate amount of alcohol, which is one drink for women and two drinks for men per day. The likelihood of experiencing side effects is particularly high with long-term use of ibuprofen, or regular, heavy alcohol use.
The following sections discuss the health risks relating to taking ibuprofen and alcohol at the same time.
Stomach ulcers and bleeding
Ibuprofen can irritate the digestive tract, which is why doctors tell people to take this medication with food. When a person takes ibuprofen for an extended period or in high doses, it can increase their risk of gastric ulcers or bleeding in the digestive tract.
Alcohol can also irritate the stomach and digestive tract. Mixing the two further increases the risk of ulcers and bleeding.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) state that ibuprofen can interact with alcohol, which can worsen the usual side effects of ibuprofen. These side effects can include bleeding, ulcers, and a rapid heartbeat.
The risk of stomach ulcer bleeding increases the longer a person takes ibuprofen. A person who takes ibuprofen every day for several months has a higher risk of this symptom than someone who takes ibuprofen once a week.
The kidneys filter harmful substances from the body, including alcohol. The more alcohol that a person drinks, the harder the kidneys have to work.
Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs affect kidney function because they stop the production of an enzyme in the kidneys called cyclooxygenase (COX). By limiting the production of COX, ibuprofen lowers inflammation and pain. However, this also changes how well the kidneys can do their job as filters, at least temporarily.
Although the risk of kidney problems is low in healthy people who only occasionally take ibuprofen, the drug can be dangerous for people who already have reduced kidney function.
People who have a history of kidney problems should ask a doctor before taking ibuprofen with alcohol.
Individually, both alcohol and ibuprofen can cause drowsiness. Combining the two may make this drowsiness worse, which can lead to excessive sleepiness or an inability to function normally.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that it is never safe to drink alcohol and drive. The reason for this is that alcohol slows down reaction times and impairs coordination.
Risks in older adults
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report that older adults have a greater risk of complications relating to mixing medication and alcohol. The risk is higher because a person’s body becomes less able to break down alcohol with age.
People are also often likely to take more medications that could interact with alcohol as they get older.
The authors of a study on drug-alcohol interactions state that most older adults in the U.S. use prescription or nonprescription medications, and more than 50 percent drink alcohol regularly. Drinking alcohol while taking medication puts older adults at higher risk of falls, other accidents, and adverse drug interactions.
People should take ibuprofen for the shortest possible time at the lowest manageable dosage. A doctor can provide advice on safe long-term methods of pain management.
Some combination medications, such as cold medicines, headache medicines, and prescription pain relievers, contain ibuprofen. Therefore, it is important to read the labels on all medications before taking them to avoid exceeding the safe amount of ibuprofen.
People should also be wary about taking ibuprofen to ease a hangover, as they may still have alcohol remaining in their system. The stomach may also be more sensitive than usual at this time.
Drinking alcohol only in moderation can prevent unwanted side effects. According to the CDC, moderate drinking means a maximum of one drink for women and two drinks for men per day.
They state that each of the following counts as one alcoholic drink:
- a 12-ounce (oz) beer that contains 5 percent alcohol
- 8 oz of malt liquor that contains 7 percent alcohol
- 5 oz of wine that contains 12 percent alcohol
- 1.5 oz or a “shot” of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquors, such as gin, rum, vodka, or whiskey, that contain 40 percent alcohol
The amount of alcohol in the drink matters. For instance, some types of beer and wine have higher alcohol content than others. Some types of liquor are also stronger than others.
Beer and wine are no safer to drink than liquor, including when it comes to taking ibuprofen.
Keeping alcohol intake within the recommended limits will reduce the risk of unwanted side effects, such as stomach bleeding and ulcers.
People who take ibuprofen regularly should watch for symptoms of stomach bleeding and ulcers, which may include:
- stomach pain or cramps that do not go away
- blood in the vomit
- vomit that resembles coffee grounds
- blood in the stool
- stool that looks black or tarry
- dizziness or fainting
- a rapid pulse
If these symptoms appear, seek emergency medical attention.
People who drink large amounts of alcohol every day or feel that they are unable to stop drinking can talk to a doctor about ways to reduce their alcohol intake.
It is generally safe to take ibuprofen when following the instructions on the packaging and a doctor’s orders. People can also use different types of pain reliever or alternative pain relief methods.
However, other pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin, can also interact with alcohol to cause adverse side effects.
Acetaminophen affects the liver and can cause life-threatening liver damage in people who drink alcohol regularly. Aspirin and naproxen are NSAIDs, which means that they belong to the same class of medication as ibuprofen and carry many of the same risks.
Natural remedies are not necessarily any safer to take with alcohol. Some herbal medicines and natural supplements can also interact with alcohol and cause side effects.
When someone has already had more than a moderate amount of alcohol, the safest approach to pain relief is to wait until the alcohol is out of the body before taking ibuprofen or other pain medicines.
A person can relieve pain using other methods, including:
- ice packs
- heating pads
- light exercise, such as walking
- topical menthol-based creams and rubs
- relaxation, deep breathing, meditation, or guided imagery
While people can typically have a small amount of alcohol with ibuprofen, the safest option is to avoid mixing the two.
People who have health conditions should talk with a doctor about their medications and alcohol consumption to determine what is safe for them.
What should I do if I have taken alcohol and ibuprofen together?
If you have consumed a small-to-moderate amount of alcohol along with ibuprofen, do not drink any more alcohol. You can reduce the risk of stomach upset by eating a snack or small meal and switching to drinking water. In the future, you should avoid taking any pain reliever with alcohol.
Alan Carter, PharmD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.