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Safe Drug Use for the Recovering Addict or Alcoholic

People in recovery must be especially careful when taking any kind of over-the-counter (otc) or prescription medications. Many otc meds contain alcohol or other ingredients that could endanger their sobriety by triggering a relapse. Even physicians not familiar with addiction may prescribe meds that are not safe for the addict/alcoholic. People in recovery must be vigilant in protecting their sobriety. They must read ingredients, ask questions, and use much caution in using any kind of medication. If in doubt about a specific medication, contact your psychiatrist/addictionologist or another knowledgeable person for guidance.

Important points:

  • Never take a medication given to you by someone else without knowing what it is. For example, a friend trying to be helpful can inadvertently cause a setback for a person in recovery by giving them a narcotic for a headache.

OTC meds

  • Avoid otc meds that contain alcohol. Read the label. These meds are typically liquid cough medicines or liquid cold medications, such as Nyquil. There are several cough syrups available that are alcohol-free, such as Tussin dm.
  • Most otc meds for minor problems are safe. These include topical analgesic, anti-itch, and antibiotic creams, hemorrhoid preparations, antacids, meds for diarrhea and nausea, and throat lozenges.
  • Use caution with laxatives and nasal sprays. Overuse of either of these products can cause physical dependence on them. They should be for occasional use only.


  • Mouthwashes contain alcohol and are frequently abused by alcoholics. Look for alcohol-free alternatives. There are alcohol-free mouthwashes available.

Cold/allergy meds

  • Cold/allergy meds are a danger to many. When absolutely necessary, choose non-drowsy type meds. Take the med as directed for the minimum time needed.

Sleep Meds

  • Medications for sleep should only be prescribed by a psychiatrist/addictionologist. Do not use otc sleep meds, including Benadryl, without approval.

Attention Deficit Disorder meds

  • Attention Deficit Disorder is being diagnosed more frequently in adults. At this time, the add meds approved by the Ridgeview treatment team are Clonidine, Intuniv, Strattera, Tenex and Wellbutrin. Only your psychiatrist/ addictionologist should prescribe an add med for you.

Pain meds

  • Pain meds are tricky for people in recovery. Most otc pain relievers are fine—ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxyn (Aleve), Tylenol. These meds are very effective for many aches and pains. There are times when the addict/alcoholic must have stronger pain meds, such as narcotics, after surgery or for a severe injury. If the narcotics are necessary and taken only as directed, this is not considered a relapse. It is normal for this to cause anxiety in recovering people, so it is recommended that the recovering person prepare themselves before surgery when possible with extra recovery support and pre-planning regarding pain relief. In any case, the recovering person should not handle the pain meds themselves. Someone close to the person should keep the med and give it only as directed during the recuperation time. Any leftover pain meds should be discarded as soon as possible. Your psychiatrist/addictionologist should be aware of the situation and be available to offer guidance in the use of these meds. Addicts/alcoholics are not expected to suffer with severe pain, but they must be very cautious with the use of pain medications.

Prescribed meds

  • Recovering people need to make sure all of their physicians are aware of their addiction. They should ensure their charts at their physicians’ offices are marked accordingly so no one can make a mistake in prescribing meds. When in doubt about a medication, consult your psychiatrist/ addictionologist.
  • In general, most antidepressants and mood stabilizers are fine and it is encouraged that recovering people take them if they are recommended by their physician. They can actually aid in your recovery by keeping moods stable.

Vitamins and herbal supplements

  • Vitamins are safe for use and are encouraged as part of a healthy lifestyle.
  • Many herbal supplements are safe, but caution should be used. Weight loss products and appetite suppressants should be avoided. Many cause a stimulant-type effect. Supplements for sleep or mood (such as Kava Kava and Valerian) should also be avoided unless approved.
  • Some supplements are recommended. One is milk thistle, which has been shown to help with liver repair.
  • Avoid energy drinks, such as Red Bull. These are full of caffeine and cause a stimulant-type effect. Some of the drinks contain small amounts of alcohol.

Click here for a partial list of over-the-counter and prescription medications divided into three categories:

  • safe to use anytime
  • gray area medications (use with caution; before using, consult your addictionologist)
  • dangerous medications (never safe to use except in extreme circumstances; consult your addictionologist)

This information was provided by Ridgeview Institute, Smyrna, GA