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:

  • Coordination —needed for steering, braking, accelerating, and manipulating the vehicle
  • Reaction time —needed to respond in time and appropriately deal with certain situations
  • Judgment —helps with risk assessment, avoidance of hazards, and emergency decision-making
  • Tracking —helps to stay in the lane and maintain the correct distance from other cars and obstacles
  • Attention —ability to handle the high demand for information-processing
  • Perception —needed for glare resistance, dark and light adaptation, and dynamic visual acuity

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:

  • Pain relievers with codeine or other opiates
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Sedatives and tranquilizers
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Some medications used to treat high blood pressure
  • Some medications used to treat depression or anxiety
  • Over-the-counter medications containing antihistamines such as diphenhydramine, brompheniramine, or chlorpheniramine. These medication can be found in products to treat:
    • Allergies symptoms
    • Colds symptoms
    • Motion sickness
  • Central nervous system stimulants used to treat ADHD
  • Medications administered to the eye, which can alter vision

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:

  • Educate yourself about the side effects of any medication (prescription or over-the-counter) or herbal supplement you take by reading the instructions carefully. Consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any new medication, and ask about possible effects on driving and what precautions you should take.
  • If you are taking multiple medications or mixing medications with herbal substances, ask your doctor and pharmacist about possible interactions and side effects that could impair your driving.
  • If you feel that your medication has impaired your ability to drive in any way (you feel drowsy, lightheaded, or are having visual problems), have someone else drive.
  • If you plan on driving, look for over-the-counter medications that do not cause drowsiness or other side effects that could impair driving.
  • Keep track of what medications are causing specific side effects that cause impairment.
  • Allow your body time to adjust to new or changes in medications.
  • Ask your doctor if there is an alternative to any prescription medication that is impairing your ability to drive.

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


National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

United States Food and Drug Administration


Canadian Pharmacists Association

The College of Family Physicians of Canada


Driver education program. Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles website. Available at: Accessed May 9, 2016.

Driving when you are taking medications. National Highway Traffic Administration website. Available at: Accessed May 9, 2016.

Medication and driving. AARP website. Available at: Accessed May 9, 2016.

Some medications and driving don't mix. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: Accessed May 9, 2016.

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