The Connection between Binge Drinking and Opioid Use

Alcoholic laying on sofa after taking pills and drinking alcohol.

In a concerning research paper published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was found that more than half of the 4.2 million people in the United States who misused prescription opioids between 2012 and 2014 also struggled with binge drinking habits. This apparently was not a new problem. The research showed that a strong connection exists between binge drinking and prescription opioid misuse, and that binge drinkers are more likely to misuse opioid pharmaceuticals and vice versa.

As if one drug addiction wasn’t already bad enough, the research sheds light on the existence of a severe problem of polysubstance abuse in our society today.

The CDC’s study was published in its full form in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. A summarized version of the research results are available at the CDC’s website. U.S. News also released a brief news report on the subject.

The Research

To begin by defining the terms, the research clarifies binge drinking as the consumption of four or more drinks for women, or five or more drinks for men, all on any one occasion. Prescription opioid misuse is defined simply as someone who is using prescription opioids to get high or someone who is using the drugs without a prescription for them.

The CDC’s research was further assisted by the wealth of data provided by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationwide program that collects annual data on drug use trends across the United States. The CDC analyzed the NSDUH data and came to some concerning conclusions:

As the frequency of binge drinking increased in those surveyed, prescription opioid misuse statistics also increased. It seems that the problems reflect off of each other, and when one becomes more severe, the other becomes more severe in tandem.

Of the people surveyed, those who binge drank and misused prescription opioids were more likely to reside in low-income demographics or to have achieved lower-than-average educational levels. This suggests that, while addiction can certainly befall anyone, poly-drug addiction, which is the crisis of someone who struggles with more than one habit at once, is more likely to happen in low-income, low-education demographics. So there are socioeconomic and educational factors in addiction.

Two out of three of those surveyed who binge drank and misused prescription opioids were at least 26 years old or older. It seems that, while young people certainly are capable of struggling with addiction and millions of young adults and teens do suffer from a drug habit, the crisis of binge drinking and pharmaceutical opioid misuse does not occur until later on in life.

The more we know about this crisis, the better we can work to correct it. Socioeconomic factors do impinge on one’s chances of falling prey to addiction, particularly to poly-drug use. And if one begins using drugs in their youth, they are more likely to fall on harder times with even more drug use in their adult years. And it seems that addiction begets addiction too. When someone uses two types of drugs, if their use of one drug goes up, the other is likely to go up as well.

What the Experts Are Saying

Emergency in a hospital.

According to CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield (quoted from the U.S. News article mentioned earlier): “We are losing far too many Americans each day from overdoses. Combining alcohol and opioids can significantly increase the risk of overdoses and deaths.”

The risk behind using prescription opioids simultaneously with drinking alcohol could not be more clear. Even patients who take prescription opioids ethically should not drink alcohol at the same time. The danger is amplified greatly when one begins to misuse prescription opioids and binge drink.

“The simultaneous use of alcohol and prescription opioids is dangerous because both types of substances act as central nervous system depressants. This interaction significantly increases the risk of respiratory depression and death.”

According to Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, “The simultaneous use of alcohol and prescription opioids is dangerous because both types of substances act as central nervous system depressants. This interaction significantly increases the risk of respiratory depression and death. We need to educate those who drink excessively about the added dangers of misusing opioids, which can be a recipe for respiratory depression and death.”

What It Means to Be Addicted to More than One Substance

Let’s take a moment and examine the severity of what it means to be addicted to two substances at once, rather than “just one.” We already know how dangerous one drug addiction is. We understand the risk in alcoholism. Tens of thousands of people die from drug addiction every year. Even more die from alcohol-related causes every year.

When someone falls prey to a drug habit and alcoholism, they double the chances of an overdose or a substance-related fatality. In fact, with opioids and alcohol, the risk is even more severe. As Dr. Glatter said, alcohol and opioids are both central nervous system depressants. When an individual misuses both of these substances at once, the alcohol increases the opioid’s effects and vice versa.

Treatment Is Key

As I read through the CDC and U.S. News documentation, I was disappointed to find that in an entire article in U.S. News and in an entire press release from the CDC, only a single sentence was written in each which suggested we solve this problem of binge drinking and prescription opioid misuse with treatment.

Residential addiction treatment at a qualified rehab center is the best way to give an addict the tools he needs to overcome a drug or alcohol crisis once and for all. In fact, for someone who is addicted to both prescription opioids and alcohol, residential rehab is his only chance at breaking free from this crippling habit.

If you know someone who is struggling with opioid addiction and alcohol misuse, do your best to get them into a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment center as soon as possible. Make sure that it is a treatment center which can treat both alcohol addiction and opioid dependence in tandem.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli ICAADC, CCS, LADC,RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.