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Mixing Tramadol and Alcohol: What Are the Dangers?

The tragic outcome of Kaitlin Clegg’s life highlights the dangers of tramadol. According to a report, the 12-year-old felt ill and reached for what she thought was ibuprofen on her grandmother’s coffee table in England. It turned out to be tramadol. As a result, Clegg died in her sleep.

“Whilst in pain, she took the medication hoping it would do her some good. Tragically, it did not,” said the coroner appointed to the case.

On its own, this powerful opioid painkiller is capable of inflicting life-threatening respiratory depression and a host of side effects, especially in children Clegg’s age. When tramadol is paired with alcohol, the litany of dangers is exacerbated, virtually ensuring that a user will succumb to a fatal overdose.

What typically occurs from alcohol and opioid overdose is that the sufferer will go to sleep and forget to wake up. For people engaged in this sort of polysubstance abuse, professional addiction treatment is often the only available life-saving solution. 

Read on to learn more about the dangers of mixing alcohol with tramadol and available treatment options.

What Is Tramadol? 

Tramadol is a synthetic opioid prescribed to treat moderate-to-moderately-severe pain. It was developed in Germany in 1962 and introduced to the United States in 1995. It is sold under the brand name of Ultram and available as a generic medication. Tramadol is available as a capsule or tablet, and it comes in immediate and extended-release forms. Structurally, tramadol is similar to opioids like codeine and morphine.

And like other drugs of its class, tramadol binds to the opioid receptors in the brain and blocks a user’s ability to experience pain. It also possesses antidepressant and anti-anxiety attributes. Thus, when someone consumes large doses of it, they can experience a mellow bliss.

Tramadol Dangers

However, explicit dangers come with tramadol, even when it is ingested at the recommended doses. A patient can become dependent on the drug even as they are following doctor’s orders. Seizures can result in recommended doses as well, not to mention a myriad of side effects.

The common side effects associated with tramadol include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Sleepiness
  • Changes in mood
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body
  • Nervousness
  • Muscle tightness

There are more serious side effects that come from use, such as:

  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Swelling
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Blisters
  • Hives
  • Rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Agitation
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Confusion
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Shivering
  • Severe muscle stiffness or twitching
  • Loss of coordination
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Changes in heartbeat
  • Hoarseness
  • Inability to get or keep an erection
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Decreased sexual desire

Tramadol Overdose

While tramadol is not nearly as potent as other opioids like heroin, oxycodone, or morphine, it is still capable of producing life-threatening overdose effects.

By itself, and in high enough doses, tramadol can cause troubling symptoms of overdose such as:

  • Slowed heartbeat
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pinprick pupils
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Unconsciousness
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Coma

Alcohol Dangers 

Though it is a legal substance, alcohol at high doses can be the most destructive substance you can consume. In fact, a group of scientists identified alcohol as the most dangerous substance in the world, ahead of heroin, methamphetamine, tobacco, and cocaine.

When users engage in heavy alcohol use over a long period or binge drink, they are at risk of incurring damage in virtually every realm of the body. For men, heavy drinking is consuming 15 or more drinks a week. For women, that number is at eight or more. Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more for women on a single occasion. 

Alcohol can be life-threatening when someone stops using and experiences physical and psychological disturbances. These disturbances are referred to as withdrawal symptoms.

They occur because the body has become so used to the presence of alcohol that it experiences “malfunction” when the substance leaves. When someone experiences these effects, alcohol dependency has been established.   

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pale skin
  • Insomnia
  • Shakiness
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Headache
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating and chills
  • Feeling exhausted
  • Difficulty concentrating

Yet, alcohol can produce severe symptoms of withdrawal, which include:

  • Seizures
  • Tremors in the hands
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Accelerated breathing
  • Fever
  • High blood pressure
  • Dilated pupils

When Alcohol Can Kill

Like tramadol, alcohol by itself possesses the ability to claim lives. The most severe form of alcohol withdrawal is a condition known as delirium tremens or DTs. This condition typically afflicts people who have engaged in heavy drinking for 10 years or more. DTs can generate ruinous, life-altering effects, up to and including death. 

The effects that DTs produces include:

  • Seizures
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Hallucinations
  • Body tremors
  • Sudden severe confusion
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heavy sweating
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Fear
  • Restlessness
  • Bursts of energy
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, or touch
  • Deep sleep lasting for a day or longer
  • Excitement
  • Sleepiness and fatigue

When Tramadol and Alcohol Mix

By every measure, alcohol can make a tramadol addiction even worse.

According to The International Journal of Clinical Practice, researchers found that 28 percent of people who abused tramadol did so with alcohol or other drugs. People resort to this sort of polysubstance abuse to experience magnified sedative and euphoric effects.

By taking these substances together, the consequences can be disastrous. Tramadol by itself can impact serotonin levels in the brain. When alcohol is added to the mix, the seizure risk spikes. The seizures that result are deadly, especially when the sufferer has no access to medical care. Without medical assistance, that person can die. 

What’s more, alcohol can disrupt the proper functioning of tramadol. For example, when someone takes the time-release version of tramadol, only a portion of the drug is dropped into the blood at intervals over an extended period. This is ideal for people who have intense pain and require each dose to work for long periods. Alcohol, however, can break down tramadol’s time release function, dispersing the entire dose at one time, intensifying addiction.

That same user will require much higher doses of tramadol to feel the effects, subjecting themselves to a potential overdose.

Overdose from Alcohol and Tramadol

Alcohol greatly exacerbates the effects of tramadol. As central nervous system (CNS) depressants, both possess the ability to produce profound sedative effects. But the chief danger they produce when taken together is overdose through severe respiratory depression.

Simply put, when you take both substances together, your breathing will become shallow and slow, according to Livestrong. In high doses, there is a strong possibility that you will stop breathing altogether.

How Professional Treatment Can Help

Polysubstance abuse often results in death if not severe health complications. That’s why professional addiction treatment is critical. Any reputable program will treat both addictions by ensuring their removal from your body via medical detoxification.

With an alcohol and opioid issue, a licensed medical staff will administer medication to wean you off both substances. This helps you to avoid the life-threatening effects of withdrawal.  

Once you have undergone detox, you can receive full-time, ongoing care through a partial hospitalization program (PHP). Partial hospitalization will allow you to receive comprehensive therapy and counseling while you stay at a transitional living facility. After PHP, you can continue to receive treatment through an intensive outpatient program (IOP), which allows you to stay at home or in another living arrangement.

Once treatment is completed, a clinical team can arrange aftercare through an alumni program. This allows you to connect to a supportive recovery community. 

Sources

Ocean Breeze Recovery. (2019, March 07). Tramadol Addiction Causes, Symptoms, & Signs | Ocean Breeze Recovery. from https://oceanbreezerecovery.org/opioids/tramadol/

Palm Beach Institute. (2018, December 21). Mixing Tramadol and Alcohol: A Safety Guide. from https://www.pbinstitute.com/tramadol/and-alcohol/

Pickles, J., & Smith, S. (2019, April 04). Tragedy of schoolgirl who accidentally killed herself with gran's painkillers. from https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/i-love-you-nanna-tragedy-16075062

Tramadol – Top 8 Things You Need to Know. (n.d.). from https://www.drugs.com/article/tramadol-need-to-know.html

Tramadol: MedlinePlus Drug Information. (n.d.). from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a695011.html

What Happens If Alcohol Is Taken With Tramadol HCL? (n.d.). from https://www.livestrong.com/article/549796-what-happens-if-alcohol-is-taken-with-tramadol-hcl/

Winstock, A. R., Borschmann, R., & Bell, J. (2014, April 15). The non‐medical use of tramadol in the UK: Findings from a large community sample. from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/ijcp.12429

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