By: Kandace L. West, Pharm.D.

Medications are a part improving the quality of life for many individuals and in many instances, a means of survival.   On average, 48.5% of Americans take at least one prescription medication and the expected prescription drug use is projected to increase with healthcare reform.[1] Older adults, aged 65 and above are also expected to contribute to this trend; taking on average roughly 14 prescription medications per year today.[2] According to the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, in 2011 the older adult, aged 65 and older, was 16% of licensed drivers on the road.[3] All of this serves as a reminder of the reality that more people are driving under the influence of prescription medications and over the counter products, and we just may not realize it.

Many of us residents in southern California can remember that fatal incident that occurred in Santa Monica, where an older adult motorist drove his car through a crowded open-air market on the Third Street Promenade. The motorist was 86 years old and there was a possibility of medications being involved in the accident. On October 20, 2006 the motorist was found guilty of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter, and the trial brought attention to safety risk posed by elderly drivers.[4] The unfortunate reality is that prescription medications are very powerful and can be dangerous if taken not as directed.

As a Medication Care Pharmacist I am always taking the time to remind individuals that medications have the potential to do great good and harm. Some can cure people of diseases such as pneumonia, help someone live their life and go to work by alleviating otherwise debilitating pain, or help an individual survive a once terminal illness such as cancer. Prescription medications if taken correctly have the ability to improve an individual’s health and ultimately their quality of life, but if taken incorrectly, medications have the ability to harm not only to the individual themselves, but in some case others as well. So if you, your friends, or loved ones, are taking prescription medications, what are some things that you should know and do to keep safe, especially while driving?

(1)    Be aware that some Over-the-Counter (OTC) medications can impair your ability to drive safely. The number one culprits are sleep aids, anti-allergy medications and cold-flu products. Medications like Benadryl/Diphenhydramine that are often found in many OTC sleep aids, anti-allergy medications and cold-flu products can make someone feel drowsy, dizzy, sleepy, and have blurred vision. In the older adult population, they are more likely to feel confused and disoriented. If you are at the local pharmacy selecting any OTC product be sure to take the time and stop to ask the pharmacist if the medication you selected is okay to take while driving. Professional advice is always the best when it comes to what OTC product to take. So ask your doctor or the pharmacist, to ensure your safety before you buy an OTC product.

(2)    Other prescription medications that may impair driving include prescriptions for anxiety, some antidepressants, pain relief, and any products containing codeine. Many of these prescription medications will have a caution or warning label printed such as “do not operate heavy machinery,” or “may cause drowsiness, or dizziness,” and it is especially important to understand what these mean. If you a receiving a prescription medication from your doctor be sure to ask them about taking the prescribed medication and if it is okay to drive before you fill it at the pharmacy. Also, be sure when you are picking up your prescription at the pharmacy to tell the pharmacist of all OTC products, prescription medications, herbals, and supplements that you are taking because they may interact with the medication and increase the side effects of dizziness, drowsiness, sleepiness, and other unwanted effects.

(3)    If you are taking any medication it should be your responsibility to know how your body reacts to the medication and monitor your side effects. Part of that means that you have a conversation with your doctor and pharmacist for what side effects to expect, but also listen to your body and pay attention to any reaction to the medication so that you can notify both your doctor and pharmacist. This may seem very simple, but some individuals may be so busy, that they do not take the time to reflect on how their body is reacting to the medication. Your observations of how your body reacts to the medication may be useful insight for the doctor or pharmacist so that adjustments can made in the therapy (i.e. reduce dosage, change the class of medication, alter administration route or frequency, etc.) that will benefit you and ultimately keep you safe.

To learn more about how to keep safe with prescription medication use and driving please visit the following sites below for more information:

[1] (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012)

[2] (American Society of Consultant Pharmacists, 2013)

[3] (US Department of Transportation, 2011)

[4] (CBS News, 2009)

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