The surprising truth about medications and driving

It’s never more important to be alert and aware than it is when you’re behind the wheel of your car. Whether you’re making your way downtown in an area filled with pedestrians or you’re cruising down a crowded highway at top speed, you have to be ready to react at a moment’s notice.

If you take certain medications, you may have seen the following text on their label: “Do not operate heavy machinery.” For some medicines, like sleeping pills, that may seem like a given.

But there are a lot of other medications you may be surprised to learn could get you into trouble if you take them before driving…

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What are some symptoms that can influence your driving?

Some prescription and nonprescription (or over-the-counter) medications can have side effects that can make it unsafe for you to drive or operate heavy machinery.

What exactly does the label mean by “heavy machinery?” Obviously, your car counts. But so does a motorcycle, boat, truck, bus, train, forklift or any heavy construction equipment. Even an electric scooter can qualify if it goes fast enough. And if you really want to be careful, you probably shouldn’t ride your bike, either.

Worrisome symptoms that make driving dangerous include:

  • Sleepiness or drowsiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Slowed or uncoordinated movement
  • Fainting
  • Inability to focus or pay attention
  • Nausea
  • Excitability

Which medicines can cause these symptoms?

It’s always a good idea to read the labels of whatever medications you take so that you know what side effects to expect. However, you can be reasonably sure the following medications could make it dangerous for you to drive:

  • Antipsychotic medicines
  • Antiseizure medicines (antiepileptic drugs)
  • Medicines to stay awake and other stimulants (like caffeine pills, diet pills, or ephedrine)
  • Medicines for diarrhea and urine or bladder control
  • Motion sickness medicines
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Opioids
  • Cough suppressants containing codeine and hydrocodone
  • Prescription medicines for anxiety (like benzodiazepines)
  • Sleeping pills
  • Some antidepressants
  • Some prescription and OTC cold or cough medicines
  • Some prescription and OTC allergy medicines, especially antihistamines

It might be surprising to see stimulants on this list. Although drowsiness isn’t an issue with these medicines, they could make you overly jittery and affect your concentration or judgment when behind the wheel.

You should also be wary of taking products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds like CBD which can cause sleepiness and make you less alert.

You’ll also want to watch out for natural sleep aids like melatonin, valerian root, chamomile, L-theanine or even magnesium. While they may not be quite as powerful as prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids, there’s still a chance they could cause problems if you take them right before driving.

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How can you avoid impaired or drugged driving? 

If taking a medication with a warning, it’s best to always heed that warning. But some medications can affect or impair others differently, without warning.

To be extra safe, the first time you take a new medication should be at a time when you won’t need to drive. That way, you can see whether it causes any of the symptoms listed above.

Some medicines may cause symptoms for a short time, while for others the effects may last several hours and even into the next day.

For example, many people with insomnia take medicines before bedtime to help them fall asleep, stay asleep or both. However, these medicines could come with a bit of a hangover the next morning that leaves you less able to perform daily activities, including driving.

It’s always a good idea to read your medication’s labeling. You can also speak with your doctor about the medication to get more information about its side effects, including drowsiness or lack of focus.

Never drink and drive. That’s a no-brainer, but did you know that drinking while on some of the medications listed above can double or triple the effects of alcohol? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescription drugs are commonly linked to drugged driving accidents.

Always tell your doctor about all the prescription and nonprescription medicines you’re taking and any vitamins and herbal or dietary supplements to avoid possible interactions that could cause drowsiness.

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Some Medicines and Driving Don’t Mix — U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.