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Driving under the influence of prescription, over-the-counter medications could be dangerous

car-keysThe cold that has been dogging you for days has finally caught up with you. Your throat is killing you and you feel feverish. All you have in the medicine cabinet is Nyquil, but you have to get some relief before you head off to work. You make the decision to take a swig of the green concoction and grab your car keys.

It may seem like a harmless solution to your cold symptoms, but driving under the influence of medication, even over-the-counter medications, can be dangerous.

According to a report (pdf) by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2009, 18 percent of fatally injured drivers tested positive for at least one drug—illicit, prescription or over-the-counter.

What medications can impair your driving abilities?

“Any type of benzodiazepines—things like Xanax® or Ativan® can impair your driving,” said Thu P. Vo, DO.

These drugs are used to treat insomnia, relieve anxiety or muscle spasms and prevent seizures. But in high doses they can act as hypnotic and even small amounts can cause sedation – both of which can cause impaired driving.

Other types of medications that can cause decreased driving abilities are opioid analgesics. The stronger versions come in the form of morphine, codeine or fentanyl. But in their non-narcotic form, they come in the form of Tylenol® or Advil®.

People take those type of medications every day. How can they be dangerous?

“Anything that is taken in excess can be dangerous,” Dr. Vo said. “I know one of the big things that teenagers use these days is dextromethorphan, which is a cough syrup. It causes a “high,” so kids are abusing it.”

Sudafedrin, or Sudafed, has also been a drug that has been abused in the last few years. That is why it’s now behind the counter at the pharmacy.

When you take these seemingly harmless medications in excess they cause you to become over-stimulated which can cause difficulty concentrating and other symptoms that aren’t conducive to safe driving.

How do I know if the medication I’m taking is causing impaired driving abilities?

The symptoms can include:

  • Decreased reaction time
  • Sleepiness
  • Altered perceptions
  • Change in cognition
  • Change in attention span
  • Problems with coordination or balance

How can patients avoid driving under the influence of these medications?

“It is very important to read warning labels,” Dr. Vo said. “Things such as benzodiazepine and narcotic medications will have warning signs that say not to operate heavy machinery while on the medication.”

And the best way to prevent an accident while driving under the influence of a medication is to make sure you know how the drug will affect you before you get behind the wheel.

Are there any laws against having high doses of prescription or over-the-counter medications in your system while operating a motor vehicle?

“Unfortunately, the problem with drugged driving is that laws vary by state and there’s no one set of rules that says you’re definitely impaired or you’re not impaired,” Dr. Vo said.

When your Blood Alcohol Level (BAC) is over 0.08 percent, you are considered to be impaired. If you’re over that limit, then you’re definitely intoxicated. But there’s not really a level that law enforcement officials use to determine drugged driving.

However, Dr. Vo believes that the future may bring a more unified standard for determining impaired driving.

“They do have laws already in some states where they are educating police officers how to detect people that are impaired in their driving,” she said. “And if they suspect impaired driving, they’re allowed to check with urine drug screens or blood tests.”

People are recognizing that drugged driving is a problem, so law enforcement and the government are trying to get laws in place for that.

For more information about what medications can cause impaired driving, visit www.drugabuse.gov or www.justice.gov.

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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Driving under the influence of prescription, over-the-counter medications could be dangerous