Driving When You Are Taking Medications

Some of the physical and mental changes of aging can affect our driving abilities. It's important to know that medications seniors take also can make it unsafe to drive. What should you know before you pick up the car keys and pick up your next prescription?

For most people, driving represents freedom, control and independence. Driving enables most people to get to the places they want or need to go. But driving is a complex skill, requiring a coordination of physical and mental abilities, as well as information from our senses. Our ability to drive safely can be affected by changes in our physical, emotional and mental condition. It also can be affected by the medications we take.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that drivers talk to their healthcare providers about the effect medications might have on their driving, and offers this information to consider:

How can medications affect my driving?

People use medications for a variety of reasons, including allergies, anxieties, colds, depression, diabetes, heart and cholesterol conditions, high blood pressure, muscle spasms, pain and Parkinson’s disease.

Medicines include medications that your doctor prescribes and over-the-counter medications that you buy without a doctor's prescription. Many people also take herbal supplements. Some of these medications and supplements may cause a variety of reactions that make it more difficult to drive a car safely. These reactions may include:

  • Sleepiness.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Dizziness.
  • Slowed movement.
  • Fainting.
  • Inability to focus or pay attention.
  • Nausea.

Older people often use more than one medication at a time. A combination of different medicines can cause problems for some people. This is especially true for older adults because they use more medicines than any other age group. Due to changes in the body as we age, older adults are more prone to medicine-related problems. The more medicines you use, the greater your risk that your medicines will affect your ability to drive safely. To help avoid problems, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider at least once a year about all the medicines—both prescription and over-the-counter—you are using. Also let your doctor know if you are using herbal supplements. Do this even if your medicines and supplements currently are not causing you a problem.

Can I still drive safely if I am taking medications?

Yes, most people can drive safely when they are taking medications. It depends on the effect that those medicines, both prescription and over-the-counter, have on their driving. But in many instances, your doctor can help minimize the impact of your medicines on your driving in several ways. Your doctor may be able to:

  • Adjust the dose.
  • Adjust the timing of doses.
  • Recommend an exercise or nutrition program to lessen the need for medication.
  • Change the medication to one that causes less drowsiness.

Here are steps to take to be safe:

Talk to your doctor honestly. When your doctor prescribes a medicine for you, ask about side effects. How should you expect the medicine to affect your ability to drive? Remind your doctor of other medicines and herbal supplements you are using, especially if you see more than one doctor. Talking honestly with your doctor also means telling the doctor if you are not using all or any of the prescribed medicines. Do not stop using your medicine unless the doctor tells you to.

Ask your doctor if you should drive—especially when you first take a medication. Using a new medicine can cause you to react in a number of ways. It is recommended that you do not drive when you first start using a new medicine until you know how the drug affects you. You also need to be aware that this includes some over-the-counter medicines and herbal supplements.

Talk to your pharmacist. Ask the pharmacist to review your medicines with you and to remind you of any effects they may have on your ability to drive safely. Be sure to request printed information about the side effects of any new medicine. Remind your pharmacist of other medicines and herbal supplements you are using. Pharmacists are available to answer questions wherever you get your medicine. If you buy medicines by mail, the mail-order pharmacies should have a toll-free number you can call and a pharmacist available to answer your questions.

Monitor yourself. Learn to know how your body reacts to medicines and supplements. Keep track of how you feel after you use a medicine. For example, do you feel sleepy? Is your vision blurry? Do you feel weak and slow? When do these things happen?

Let your doctor know what is happening. Both prescription and over-the-counter medicines are powerful—that's why they work. Each person is unique. Two people may respond differently to the same medicine. If you are experiencing side effects, the doctor needs to know in order to adjust your medicine. Your doctor can help you find a medicine that works best for you.

What if I have to reduce or stop driving?

You can keep your independence even if you have to cut back or give up on your driving due to your need to use a medicine. Planning ahead will help you get to the places you want to go and the people you want to see. Consider rides with family and friends; taxi cabs; shuttle buses or vans; public buses, trains and subways; or walking. Contact your local regional transit authority to find out which bus or train to take. Also, senior centers, religious groups and other local service organizations often offer transportation services for older adults in the community. To find out more, call the ElderCare Locator at 1-800-677-1116, or go to their website at www.eldercare.gov.

Source: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Visit the FDA website for more information on medications.

The information in this article is not meant to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about the medicines you take and how they could affect your driving. Do not change the way you take your medicines without consulting your healthcare provider.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.