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Driver Beware: Certain Medications Can Impair Your Ability Behind the Wheel

“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine goes down,” the old song says. Just a spoonful of medicine at the wrong time, and your driving skills could go down. Such was the unfortunate reality of Doug, a 56-year-old accountant who had taken an over-the-counter cold medication before driving to visit a client. He didn’t know that the medication he took would make him drowsy until he woke up in his car in a deep ditch by the side of the road.

Many Consumers Unaware of Risks

Most consumers are aware of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs, but many don’t realize that certain prescription and over-the-counter medications can also impair driving. Certain drugs can interfere with factors that are essential for safe driving, such as:

The effects of medications can vary among people. They are often influenced by length of use, tolerance, overall health, individual sensitivity to the drug, metabolism, age, interactions with other medications, and other factors. For instance, older adults process some medications differently than younger adults, which could cause these drugs to affect them more.

Use Caution With These Medications

Many medications can impair your ability to drive, such as those that affect the central nervous system. They may have side effects such as drowsiness, lightheadedness, or impaired motor or judgment skills. Such medications may include:

Precautions You Can Take

In many states, it is illegal to drive while under the influence of sedating medications. But it’s important to take precautions when taking any medication. Here are some tips:

Do not stop taking medications in order to drive. Talk to your doctor before adjusting doses or stopping any medications.

RESOURCES:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
http://www.nhtsa.gov

United States Food and Drug Administration
http://www.fda.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Pharmacists Association
www.pharmacists.ca

The College of Family Physicians of Canada
http://www.cfpc.ca

REFERENCES:

Driver education program. Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles website. Available at: http://www.massrmv.com/rmv/jol/DriverEducationProgram.pdf. Accessed May 9, 2016.

Driving when you are taking medications. National Highway Traffic Administration website. Available at: http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/olddrive/medications/index.htm. Accessed May 9, 2016.

Medication and driving. AARP website. Available at: http://www.aarp.org/home-garden/transportation/info-05-2010/Medication_and_Driving.html. Accessed May 9, 2016.

Some medications and driving don't mix. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm107902.pdf. Accessed May 9, 2016.

Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 6/11/2014