Mixing Alcohol and Sedatives: Effects and Dangers
What is a Sedative?
A sedative is a type of central nervous system depressant that works by facilitating the activation of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which calms an otherwise over-excited nervous system, causing drowsiness and calming effects.1 While sedatives (aka depressants) are commonly prescribed for insomnia and anxiety, they can also elicit dose-dependent euphoria and have the potential for misuse.2
In fact, according to results from the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 4.8 million people in the United States aged 12 and older misused sedatives or tranquilizers in the past year. Within this timeframe and age group, 0.8% (2.4 million people) had a sedative or tranquilizer use disorder.3
Sedatives can be further categorized according to the following drug classes.
- Benzodiazepines. Commonly prescribed benzodiazepines and respective brand name examples include:1,4
- Nonbenzodiazepine insomnia medications. These sedatives, also called hypnotics and known as Z-drugs because of similarities in their pharmaceutical names, have significant hypnotic effects.2 Examples include:1
- Barbiturates. These sedatives have largely been replaced by benzodiazepines due to the risk of dependence and overdose, but they are still employed as anesthetic and anticonvulsant medications.5 Examples include:1
- Pentobarbital (Nembutal).
So where does alcohol fit into these definitions? Is alcohol a sedative, depressant, or tranquilizer?
Alcohol is a depressant, and while it has sedative effects, it is not prescribed for use as a sedating medication. While alcohol may initially have anxiety-reducing and relaxing effects (i.e., anxiolytic effects) similar to benzodiazepines, it can be easy for one drink to turn into more and lead to a growing dependence on alcohol in a dangerous self-perpetuating cycle.6 Alcohol can also encourage sleepiness and sedation, but unlike sedative medications and Z-drugs, alcohol has been linked to poor sleep quality and duration.7 Additionally, alcohol is dangerous when mixed with sedatives as well as opioids.8
Effects of Mixing Sedatives and Alcohol
Sedatives have calming or drowsy effects, making them effective for anxiety and sleep disorders. But sedative use and misuse also includes effects such as:1
- Slurred speech.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Dry mouth.
- Movement and memory problems.
- Lowered blood pressure.
- Slowed breathing.
However, polysubstance use—the practice of using more than one substance (e.g., alcohol and other sedatives) within a short period of time—can lead to unpredictable effects that can be stronger than the effects of either drug alone.8
In terms of alcohol and depressants, both substances produce sedation and suppress respiratory activity. When mixed, they can cause severe respiratory effects such as difficult or stopped breathing that can lead to death. Plus, the combination can result in damage to the brain, heart, and other organs.9,10
When it comes to Z-drugs, some types of insomnia medications can create significant effects on their own. For example, zolpidem (e.g., Ambien) can produce memory impairments such as blackouts, promote behaviors performed during sleep that people don’t recall (e.g., walking, driving), impair motor coordination, and increase fall risk. When zolipidem and alcohol are combined, these effects can be intensified.9
Additionally, mixing alcohol with substances that have sedative effects can increase the risk of adverse events such as falls, fatal overdoses, and driving accidents.9,11 And use of alcohol alongside other substances (including sedatives) can increase the chance of health risks such as:10,12
- Risky sexual behavior.
- Chronic disease.
- Alcohol or other substance use disorders.
Can You Overdose by Mixing Sedatives and Alcohol?
Yes, mixing alcohol and sedatives can generate synergistic effects that increases the risk of overdose.10
Symptoms of polysubstance overdose involving alcohol and sedatives include:8,10
- Slowed or difficult breathing.
- Weak pulse.
- Confusion and/or altered mental state.
- Passing out.
If you are concerned that someone has overdosed on alcohol, sedatives, or both, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers the following instructions:8
- Call 911 immediately.
- Keep the person awake and breathing if possible.
- Lay the person on their side to prevent choking on saliva or vomit.
- Stay with the person until emergency responders arrive.
Treatment for Substance Use Disorders
If you or a loved one is struggling with an alcohol or sedative use disorder—or both—help is available.
Addiction treatment can include a variety of approaches, and rehab is tailored to the unique needs of each individual. However, common levels of care include:13
- Detox. Alcohol withdrawal can be risky and uncomfortable. So medically monitored detox is often recommended. The first of several steps in treatment, detox is available in both outpatient and inpatient settings. It can help to keep patients safe and as comfortable as possible during withdrawal from alcohol and other substances.
- Inpatient treatment. With inpatient care, patients receive 24/7 care and monitoring in a residential setting. Days are highly structured and typically include therapy, supervision, counseling, psychoeducation, and more.
- Outpatient treatment. Some outpatient programs are fairly intensive, functioning as a step-down option from inpatient treatment, while others may consist of only a few treatments per month. Options include partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), and traditional outpatient rehab, as well as telehealth services.
- Aftercare programs. Aftercare—including sober living facilities, ongoing therapy, 12-Step programs, etc.—help patients maintain motivation for abstinence and avoid relapse after the completion of a formal treatment program.
With facilities scattered across the United States, American Addiction Centers offers all levels of care and is equipped to treat a host of disorders including those involving polysubstance use.
Take the first step toward recovery by speaking with an admissions navigator at or by verifying your insurance benefits online. Available 24/7 for a free and confidential conversation, AAC staff can discuss payment options and treatment particulars and can help you begin your recovery today.