Older Driver Safety Week: Ask Your Doctor About Medications
The first full week of December each year is Older Driver Safety Awareness Month, when experts focus on ways to keep seniors safe behind the wheel. This might be a driver safety evaluation, a senior driving safety course, a car inspection—and perhaps a family discussion, which isn’t always the easiest topic of conversation, because for most older adults, driving represents freedom, control and independence.
Most people know that our ability to drive safely can be affected by age-related changes in our physical, emotional and mental condition. But they might not think about another factor that can make it unsafe to drive: the medications older adults 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. Here are five important questions to ask:
#1: How can medications affect my driving?
Some medications and supplements may cause a variety of reactions that make it more difficult to drive a car safely. These reactions may include:
- Blurred vision
- Slowed movement
- Inability to focus or pay attention
#2: Which medications could make driving unsafe?
People use medications for a variety of reasons. The FDA says that these are some of the medications that could make it dangerous to drive:
- opioid pain relievers
- prescription drugs for anxiety (for example, benzodiazepines)
- anti-seizure drugs (antiepileptic drugs)
- antipsychotic drugs
- some antidepressants
- products containing codeine
- some cold remedies and allergy products, such as antihistamines (both prescription and over-the-counter)
- sleeping pills
- muscle relaxants
- medicines that treat or control symptoms of diarrhea
- medicines that treat or prevent symptoms of motion sickness
- diet pills, “stay awake” drugs, and other medications with stimulants (e.g., caffeine, ephedrine, pseudoephedrine)
These medicines include not only medications that your doctor prescribes, but also over-the-counter medications that you buy without a doctor’s prescription, including herbal supplements or cannabidiol (CBD) products.
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 those medicines will affect your ability to drive safely.
#3: Can I still drive safely if I am taking medications?
Most people can drive safely when they are taking medications. It depends on the effect of those medicines, both prescription and over-the-counter, have on your driving. In some cases, you might not be aware of the effects. But in many instances, your doctor can help to 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 or when you use the medicine.
- Recommend an exercise or nutrition program to lessen the need for medication.
- Change the medication to one that causes less drowsiness.
#4: What steps should I take to be safer?
Talk to your health care provider honestly. At least once a year, talk to your doctor about all the medicines—including prescription, over-the-counter and supplements—you are using, especially if you see more than one doctor. Do this even if you don’t feel that your medicines and supplements are currently causing you a problem. 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. When your doctor prescribes a medicine for you, or you start taking an over-the-counter or herbal product, ask about side effects. How should you expect the medicine to affect your ability to drive? 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.
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 pharmacy should have a toll-free number you can call, with a pharmacist available to answer your questions.
Monitor yourself. Learn to know how your body reacts to your medicines and supplements. Keep track of how you feel after you use the 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 and pharmacist know what is happening. No matter what your reaction is to using a medicine—good or bad—tell your doctor and pharmacist. 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.
#5: What if I have to cut back or give up 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. It may take planning ahead on your part, but it will get you to the places you want to go and the people you want to see. Consider rides with family and friends; taxi cabs or ride sharing services; shuttle buses or vans; public buses, trains and subways; or walking. Your senior living community or home care provider may offer transportation services.