Some Medicines and Driving Don’t Mix

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a wet road with oncoming cars on a rainy day seen through car windshield with combined images of medicine and an ambulance in the rear view mirror

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If you’re taking a medication, is it safe to drive?

Most likely, yes. Still, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises you to make sure before operating any type of vehicle, whether a car, bus, train, plane, or boat.

Although most medications won’t affect your ability to drive, some prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs (also called nonprescription medicines) can have side effects and cause reactions that may make it unsafe to drive, including:

  • sleepiness/drowsiness
  • blurred vision
  • dizziness
  • slowed movement
  • fainting
  • inability to focus or pay attention
  • nausea
  • excitability

Some medicines can affect your driving for a short time after you take them. For others, the effects can last for several hours, and even the next day. And some medicines have a warning to not operate heavy machinery — this includes driving a car.

Medicines That Might Affect Driving

Knowing how your medications — or any combination of them — affect your ability to drive is a safety measure. Some drugs that could make it dangerous to drive include:

  • opioid pain relievers
  • prescription drugs for anxiety (for example, benzodiazepines)
  • anti-seizure drugs (antiepileptic drugs)
  • antipsychotic drugs
  • some antidepressants
  • products containing codeine
  • some cold remedies and allergy products, such as antihistamines (both prescription and OTC)
  • sleeping pills
  • muscle relaxants
  • medicines that treat or control symptoms of diarrhea
  • medicines that treat or prevent symptoms of motion sickness
  • diet pills, “stay awake” drugs, and other medications with stimulants (e.g., caffeine, ephedrine, pseudoephedrine)

Also, avoid combining medication and alcohol while driving.

Some Sleep Medicines Can Impair You, Even the Next Morning

People with insomnia have trouble falling or staying asleep. Many take medicines to help sleep. Come morning, though, some sleep medicines could make you less able to perform activities for which you must be fully alert, including driving.

A common ingredient in a widely prescribed sleep medication is zolpidem, which belongs to a class of medications called sedative-hypnotics. The FDA has found that medicines containing zolpidem, especially extended release forms, can impair driving ability and other activities the next morning.

Zolpidem immediate and extended-release forms are marketed as generic drugs and under these brand names:

  • Ambien and Ambien CR (oral tablet)
  • Edluar (tablet placed under the tongue)
  • Intermezzo (tablet placed under the tongue)
  • Zolpimist (oral spray)

People who take sleep medicines should talk to their health care professional about ways to take the lowest effective dose. Don’t assume that non-prescription sleep medicines are necessarily safer alternatives. The FDA is also evaluating the risk of next-day impairment with other insomnia drugs, both prescription and OTC versions.

Allergy Medicines Can Affect Your Ability to Drive

For allergy sufferers, medications containing antihistamines can help relieve many different types of allergies, including hay fever. But these medicines may interfere with driving and operating heavy machinery (including driving a car). Antihistamines can slow your reaction time, make it hard to focus or think clearly, and may cause mild confusion even if you don’t feel drowsy.

Read the OTC Drug Facts label of your medicine and understand the warnings before using it. Also, avoid drinking alcohol or taking sleep medications while using some antihistamines. Those combinations can increase the sedative effects of antihistamines.

How to Avoid Driving Impaired

You can still drive safely while taking most medications. Talk to your health care provider about possible side effects. For example, some antihistamines and sleep medications work for longer periods than others. You might feel the sedating effects of these medications for some time after you’ve taken them, and maybe even into the next day.

Doctors and pharmacists can tell you about known side effects of medications, including those that interfere with driving. You can also request printed information about the side effects of any new medicine.

To manage or minimize side effects while driving, your health care provider may be able to adjust your dose, adjust the timing of when you take the medicine, or change the medicine to one that causes fewer side effects for you.

Here are some more tips:

  • Always follow directions for use and read warnings on medication packaging, or handouts provided by the pharmacy.
  • Don’t stop using your medicine unless your prescriber tells you to.
  • Tell your health care provider about all the products you are taking, including prescription, OTC, and herbal products. Also, let them know about any reactions you experience.

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