FDA Cautions Users of Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medicines

As drivers, we have all been inundated with information regarding drinking and driving from various civic organizations, advertising campaigns, school organizations, local news, and police departments. We are made aware of these campaigns during each holiday, football game, or event in which the majority of participants are tempted to relax with a cocktail or two.

We also have all read the warnings on the side of a box of over-the-counter medication in which we are warned that the medication could make us feel drowsy, and we should be careful driving or operating heavy equipment if we take the medication. How many times have you taken cold medication and then rushed out the door to work without a moment’s thought about the effect this could have on your ability to drive safely to work? We all know alcohol will affect our ability to drive but don’t really believe our reflexes will be so diminished that our reaction time in traffic will come into question.

In an effort to get the word out and educate the public, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) wants us all to be aware of the side effects of OTC medications. Many OTC medicines can affect your ability to drive and operate machinery safely. This is a serious problem which causes motor vehicle accidents every year.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), this is especially true for older adults because they take more medications than any other age group. Due to changes in the body as people age, older adults are more prone to medication related problems. The more medications you take, the greater your risk that your medicines will affect your ability to drive safely. To help avoid problems, it is important that at least once a year you talk to your doctor or pharmacist about all the medications – both prescription and over-the-counter – you are taking.

According to Friends Drive Sober, drugs impair our bodies in a variety of ways:

  • Taking sedating antidepressants even 10 hours before driving is equal to driving drunk.
  • 10 mg of Valium can cause greater driving impairment than a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1 (at or above the legal limit in all states).
  • Antihistamines – which block allergic reactions – slow down reaction time and impair coordination.
  • Over-the-counter decongestants can cause drowsiness, anxiety, and dizziness. Drowsy driving is responsible for an estimated 100,000 traffic crashes and about 1,500 deaths every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
  • Common prescription drugs (including medications to treat allergies, pain, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, ulcers, depression, anxiety disorders, and insomnia) can cause drowsiness and affect vision and other skills that can be serious hazards on the road.
  • Tranquilizers, sedatives, and sleeping pills slow down the central nervous system causing drowsiness and diminished reaction time and impairing the ability to concentrate.
  • Over-the-counter drugs such as cold and cough medicines, antihistamines, drugs to prevent nausea or motion sickness, pain relievers, decongestants, and diuretics can cause drowsiness or dizziness that can impair a driver’s skills and reflexes.
  • Some drugs may make you feel alert and confident in your driving. In reality, the situation may be quite different. Drugs can fool you into believing you are in control of your driving when you are, in fact, impaired.

When reading the side of a box for OTC cold and allergy medication, look out for these commonly used ingredients as they can cause a reaction and impair your driving:

  • Diphenhydramine
  • Chlorpheniramine
  • Brompheniramine
  • Clemastine
  • Doxylamine