Finding the Hidden Alcohol in Medicine

Winter is upon us and with it, the cold and flu season kicks in for most and germs abound. They are common in the workplace, in the crowds thronging the stores during the holiday shopping season, and of course, in schools. Children are the most frequent germ carriers, because they have not yet built up immunities.

There are lots of over-the-counter remedies available to help offset the symptoms that accompany the common cold or a flu virus. They begin, of course, with the flu vaccine itself. Many people will avail themselves of this during the early part of the flu season. However, many will already have been infected prior to the vaccine and succumb to symptoms. Others will go without the immunization and catch a flu or cold from the many exposures that seem to surround us at this time of year.

What products are safe for recovering addicts to use? Obviously, none of the cough or cold remedies that contain alcohol will be viable. The numbers of cough suppressants which contain alcohol are surprising to those who are not used to reading the labels of such products. Others, such as multisymptom products are also suspect. Some even promote sleep, induced by alcohol. Be aware of what these products contain by reading labels of everything being considered for relief.

While alcohol is a flagrant violator or abstinence, some other violators are not as easy to identify. It is best to question all ingredients by asking for help from a pharmacist before taking medications of any kind. While your physician may understand the interacting effects of various medications, they may not know which ones are dangerous for recovering addicts. The amount of education and information available to physicians about addiction can be extremely limited unless they undertake additional education for their own purposes. Many do not understand how medications can trigger a relapse for those who are in recovery. It is important to understand and advocate for oneself regarding this issue. A pharmacist is specifically trained in the interactions of various drugs and even those that have been deemed safe to purchase over-the-counter.

Therefore, it is best to consult with a pharmacist when looking for symptom relief from these seasonal nuisances. Another danger is in using "home remedies," which frequently contain some form of alcohol. Even tinctures (an herbal preparation) contain alcohol as the base for distributing the herbal concoctions. So what may seem like a homeopathic remedy may contain intoxicants. And, of course, a hot toddy is basically hot whiskey with honey and lemon juice.

Other ingredients that may cause discomfort and druglike side effects are numerous. Be sure to ask what they are and how to avoid them. Anything with a warning label that states it "may cause drowsiness" or with a warning "not to drive or handle heavy equipment" is going to have side effects that mimic or produce the effects of narcotics. Be wary to take these medications, even if they seem safe. It is best to consult with a pharmacist or doctor before taking these. Be safe and get well, not worse.


Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions' counselor.