Driving and Over-the-Counter Medications

You can buy a huge variety of non-prescription or OTC (over the counter) medications at any drug store, pharmacy or supermarket. OTC medications are available to treat nearly any malady, including aches and pain, stomach upset, nausea, diarrhea, coughs and colds and much more.

Many people think that OTC drugs are problem-free because no prescription is required, but some can present considerable risk when you get behind the wheel of a car, even when taken exactly as recommended, and even if you don’t feel impaired.

In fact, research indicates that impairment resulting from therapeutic doses of some OTC products is equal to that of the legal blood alcohol concentration levels.

Car Accidents and OTC Drugs

In the United States, about one-third of fatal car accidents involve an impaired driver. The National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) reports that the number of car accidents occurring under the influence of OTC drugs may be underestimated because few drivers are tested for the presence of non-description medications.

In the U.K., the Department of Transport has identified a number of medications that have the potential to be hazardous, including those for allergies, pain, coughs and cold, gastrointestinal upset and nausea. Medications containing antihistamines present the highest risk of dangerous sedation.

OTC Medications that may be Dangerous


Antihistamines relieve sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes or other allergy symptoms. The active ingredient label may say Diphenhydramine, Brompheniramine, Chlorpheniramine, or Doxylamine. Antihistamines may also be used in other OTC drugs to treat heartburn, indigestion, fever, cough, chest congestion or menstrual pain.

Side effects of antihistamines may include sedation, blurred vision, irritability, restlessness and nervousness. Drowsiness triggered by antihistamines is compounded if you’re tired or haven’t had adequate sleep.

Cough and Cold Medications

OTC medications used to treat coughs and colds, including decongestants and expectorants, have the potential to affect drivers with drowsiness, confusion and blurred vision, especially when the medications are combined with alcohol.

Side effects of cough and cold medications can be substantially worse when taken with prescription meds or other drowsiness-inducing OTC drugs.


Analgesics are medications designed to relieve pain. They consist primarily of aspirin, acetaminophen and NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications). Although the medications generally don’t cause sleepiness on their own, they can be dangerous when combined with prescription meds, alcohol, or other OTC drugs


Anti-emetics are medicines most commonly used to treat symptoms of motion sickness. Over-the-counter medications containing dimenhydrinate (known as Dramamine in the U.S.), can cause substantial sleepiness. Don’t use this drug when you’re driving unless you’re sure how it affects you.

Antidiarrheal Medications

Some antidiarrheal medications, including those that contain loperamide (the active ingredient in Imodium), may cause drowsiness.

Mixed Medications

Some OTC medications have more than one active ingredient. For example, a product may contain an antihistamine, a pain reliever and a decongestant. Be wary of taking these drugs if you plan to get behind the wheel.

Using OTC Drugs Safely

You may be hazardous on the roads if you take over-the-counter medications, even if you’re doing everything right. Many people are completely unaware how much the meds may affect their ability to drive.

Remember, however, that it’s your responsibility to understand the possible effects before you get behind the wheel.

Here are some guidelines for taking OTC drugs.

  • Helpful information is included with all OTC drugs, but sometimes, the tiny print can be extremely difficult to read. If you’re having trouble with the fine print, buy a pair of magnifying glasses or ask somebody to read the instructions for you.
  • Pay attention to the “active ingredients” information on the label. Be sure you aren’t taking two OTC medications with the same active ingredients.
  • Heed the “warnings” section, which will tell you what to expect, when to stop using the medication, or when the medication shouldn’t be used at all.
  • Never mix OTC medications with alcohol.
  • Pull over immediately if you feel groggy or disoriented.
  • Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you also take prescription medications, including drugs used to treat pain, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, allergies or high cholesterol.
  • Don’t get behind the wheel if you aren’t sure about OTC medications or if you think the products are making you feel groggy, confused or dizzy. Talk to your health care provider about possible alternatives.

If You’re Struggling with OTC Medications

Over-the-counter medications are addictive in the same sense as opioid drugs or alcohol, but they can still result in substance abuse or dependence. Talk to your doctor if you think you may be too dependent on OTC medications.

Consider drug and alcohol treatment or rehab if you’re concerned about addiction to drugs or alcohol. Always be very wary of mixing substances.

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