Whitney Houston death prompts concerns about mixing prescription drugs and alcohol

The toxicology results on the death of singer Whitney Houston won't be ready for weeks, but there is already speculation that a mix of prescription drugs and alcohol may have played a role.

It comes as public health officials become increasingly concerned about people who combine medications with alcohol.

By themselves, and in regular doses, doctors say drugs like Ativan and Xanas are relatively safe. They are not without side effects though. "It is so common and so many people take it that most people don't realize its potential dangers. It is addictive," said Dr. David Zich of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Zich says this class of drugs becomes truly dangerous, even potentially fatal, when combined with alcohol. "When they take high doses of these plus a lot of alcohol, usually they're very, very tired...sleepy...sometimes they're in a coma," he said. Ultimately, people can stop breathing. "They go into such a deep sleep they are in a coma and don't breathe enough to get oxygen to their brain. If you have excessive amounts and overdose, you can have seizures. Your blood pressure can drop dangerously low," Dr. Zich said.

More than half of all Americans now report taking at least one prescription drug in the last month, so warnings about the dangers of combining drugs with anything, like alcohol or other prescription drugs, have never been more important. The question remains whether people are paying attention to the warnings. "You see on the bottle that it says 'do not drink alcohol with this medication' but that's so common anymore that some people completely ignore it," Dr. Zich said.

To add to the problem, regularly taking these depressants means people often need a pick-me-up to get going. That can range from what's legal like an energy drink to what's illegal like cocaine.

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Information courtesy of NBC News.