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July 8, 2021

Prednisone: Uses, Risks, Withdrawal Symptoms, and Why Not to Take Prednisone with Alcohol

Introduced in 1955, prednisone belongs to the corticosteroidfamily of medications, drugs which supplement the natural cortisol produced by adrenal glands. Although too much cortisol (typically a symptom of chronic stress) can damage the organs and immune system, natural cortisol is essential to:

  • The body’s “fight or flight” response in emergencies
  • Blood sugar production, salt/water balance, and blood pressure regulation
  • Keeping inflammation under control

Prednisone is most frequently prescribed as an anti-inflammatory drug to treat such conditions as allergies, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lupus. Currently, it is being tested for potential to reduce organ-damaging inflammation in COVID-19 patients

The Risks of Taking Prednisone

Unfortunately, prednisone reduces not only inflammation, but also the effectiveness of the immune system. People taking the drug, especially in oral form, risk side effects such as:

  • Weight gain and/or increased appetite
  • Frequent headaches
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Mood swings
  • Frequent bruising
  • Increased vulnerability to infection
  • (In children) Stunted development

If your doctor recommends prednisone, consider the risks carefully, and be prepared to promptly report any side effects. And take extra-good care of your health and immune system: get plenty of rest, eat a healthy diet (limiting salt, sugar, and caffeine), watch your weight (it helps if you eat your meals small and just a few hours apart), and keep your distance from anyone who might be carrying contagious germs.

Don’t Drink and Take Prednisone

Although your prednisone prescription label may not say, “Avoid alcohol while taking,” corticosteroids and indiscriminate drinking are a dangerous mix. Prednisone and alcohol both have potential to cause similarly harmful effects, and when both drugs are taken together, the risk is compounded.

Side effects common with both prednisone and alcohol include:

  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches, ulcers, or bleeding stomach
  • Heartburn
  • Changes in blood sugar levels
  • Mood swings
  • Lowered bone mineral density
  • Suppression of the immune system

Alcohol can also aggravate inflammation, making the prednisone’s job harder—or alcohol’s impaired-thinking effects can make a drinker forget to take the prednisone on schedule.

Addiction? No. Withdrawal Symptoms? Yes.

One harmful effect prednisone does not share with alcohol is the potential for addiction—in the medical sense of experiencing life-dominating cravings to keep taking more. However, prednisone does create a level of physical dependence, and stopping the drug abruptly may trigger withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • Sore muscles or joints
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Lightheadedness and/or headaches
  • Loss of appetite (perhaps resulting in weight loss, whether or not you gained weight while taking the prednisone)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Depression, anxiety, or mood swings

If very unlucky, you could also suffer adrenal crisis, a severe cortisol deficiency that can be life-threatening. (Symptoms include severe nausea, extreme fatigue, low blood pressure, low blood sugar, darkening of the skin, fever, and delirium.) This is a particular risk if you’ve taken a prednisone prescription for more than three weeks: your adrenal glands will have had time to get “lazy” with the drug doing part of their job, and they may have reduced their own cortisol production to dangerous lows.

The best way to avoid withdrawal symptoms is to taper off prednisone gradually under your doctor’s guidance: never just stop cold. And don’t assume you’ll be safe from withdrawal symptoms just because you had no serious side effects while taking the prescription. Follow your doctor’s advice, continue to take special care of your physical health, and if you do notice withdrawal effects, tell your doctor and ask about non-drug methods for managing the symptoms.

Like any prescription drug, prednisone can be very helpful or very harmful. Know the facts to protect yourself from the latter possibility.

Prescription-Drug Dependence Can Be Serious

Prednisone is not considered addictive, and withdrawal is rarely life-threatening: unfortunately, the same can’t be said of many other prescription drugs. If you or someone you care about is addicted to opiates, benzodiazepines, or another drug—including alcohol, which is dangerous in itself as well as in the ways it can interact with prescription medications—Beach House can help. Contact us to learn about our many programs and our individualized treatment approach.