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Taking prescription medicines can have effects similar to drunk driving, study shows

A man sorts his blue and red pills into a daily pill scheduler, with two prescription bottles nearby.

The study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that medications such as amphetamines and cough medicines may cause dizziness, sleepiness, blurred vision and slow response time.

A new national survey from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found many Americans take their prescription or over-the-counter medicines and get behind the wheel.

But that may not be a safe decision. The study identifies antihistamines, cough medicines, antidepressants, prescription pain medicines, muscle relaxants, sleep aids and amphetamines as “potentially driver impairing” (PDI) medicines.

About half of the drivers in the 2021 study said they had used one or more PDI medicines in the past 30 days. The study said said many of these medications “have potential effects that adversely impact driving, including dizziness, sleepiness, fainting, blurred vision, slowed movement” and attention problems.

“You can even fall asleep behind the wheel and all of these things are a prescription for extremely unsafe situations for both you, the driver and everyone else on the roadway,” AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins said.

The study found that the highest proportion of drivers who reported taking to the roads after use had reported using amphetamines, such as Adderall, Dexedrine and Phentermine.

Between 20 to 50 percent of the drivers in the study, who took each of the PDI medications from antihistamines to amphetamines, said they had not been warned by a healthcare provider about the medicine’s potential impacts on driving. However, “those who did receive a warning were 18 percent less likely to report having driven after use,” the study reports.

The study said each individual is affected differently, based on their medical conditions. And "while it may be alarming that nearly half of the (study's) drivers who reported any PDI medication use reported driving within two hours of taking a dose in the past month, these drivers were not necessarily impaired," according to the study.

The bottom line, Jenkins said, is to be informed and "know how your body reacts to the medicine." And if you need to, find someone else to drive.

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