It's a given that safe driving needs concentration, alertness and an ability to react in a coordinated and timely fashion. But what may not occur to you is that the medications you're taking can seriously impact all of these things. And it's not just prescription medications, but over-the-counter products as well.
“While laws differ from state to state, you can be charged with a DUI if caught driving hazardously while taking prescription or OTC meds, even if your doctor wrote you that prescription,” adds C. Michael White, Pharm.D., FCP, FCCP, Professor and Head of the Department of Pharmacy Practice, University of Connecticut.
So what medications should you be concerned about? Read on to find out.
1. Pain relievers. The obvious culprits are opiates such as morphine and codeine, which cause sleepiness, dizziness, euphoria, and disorientation. However, there are a lot of OTC medications, such as ibuprofen, that do not cause drowsiness and dizziness but may reduce your pain for the first time in several days and indirectly cause you to relax, which can impair your coordination and reaction times. “When you are in pain, you expend a lot of energy trying to deal with it. When the pain drops off, so does your adrenalin and you feel exhausted. You feel so relieved that your judgment and coordination is off ,” says Tomaka, Norman P. Tomaka, BS Pharm, MS, FAPhA, spokesperson for the American Pharmacists Association. For a day or so after intense pain has subsided, have someone else drive you or take public transportation.
2. Antihistamines. In the old days, all antihistamine medications made you sleepy. Nowadays, we have nondrowsy choices such as Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec. The problem is that some people think all antihistamines are nondrowsy now, and forget to read the label. “If you are wondering if cough, cold or allergy product has an ability to impair driving, look at the ingredients. If something ends in “amine,” it will make you sleepy,” says White. Also, antihistamines can cause blurred vision because they dry up the tear ducts.
3. Antidepressants. Some antidepressants such as Trazodone, Nefazodone, and tricyclics can cause drowsiness and a slowness of reaction time in some patients. Those two or three extra seconds for braking could mean all the difference. Others, such as the SSRI depressants (Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro) can cause insomnia, which will make you tired and slow during the day. Also, when alcohol and antidepressants—both of which can cause drowsiness—are combined, the effect is heightened exponentially, says Tomaka, who is also Clinical Consultant Pharmacist and Healthcare Risk Manager for Consultant Pharmacy Services in Melbourne, Florida. This is not to say that you should never drive when taking antidepressants. Hold off driving for a few days when you first start, but for most people, their body will acclimate. If you find the drowsiness does not go away, try taking your medications at night so that the peak time of effect will be when you are sleeping.
4. Antihypertensives. Blood pressure medications may cause listlessness, especially the beta blockers. “If you are used to a blood pressure of 150/90, go on hypertensive, and your numbers drop to 120/80, that may zap your energy. The sluggishness usually goes away in the period of a week or two in most people, but be aware of it when you first take the medication,” says Tomaka.
5. Antianxiety agents and muscle relaxants. Prescription medications such as Valium and Xanax may have a tranquilizing effect that can impair judgment and reaction times. Beware, also, of so-called natural sleep or relaxation products. “These are insidious because people might think they are natural, so they must not have any side effects. Usually they are used for sleep or relaxation. The one I am most concerned with is something called valerian root,” says White. Melatonin may have a soporific effect as well.
6. Stimulants You would think a drug that perks you up (ie. caffeine pills, Red Bull) would be good to take before driving. Not so, says White. “The reality is that it makes you more impetuous and less likely to pay attention to fine details. If you have body revving substances in you and are feeling more energetic than usual, you may not have the ability to concentrate,” he says. Don’t worry about that cup of Joe before you hit the road. It’s not a big enough dose to impair you. Five or six, however, you might want to rethink that trip. Stimulants combined with alcohol can give you the worst of both worlds. You don’t feel as drunk as you would but the alcohol is still impairing your ability to drive.
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