Can I Get a DUI from My Cough Medicine?

Many first-time drivers know that Driving Under the Influence (DUI) of alcohol is extremely dangerous. But they may not realize that the cold medicine they take could cause a level of impairment similar to that of drinking alcohol and in many states, could even result in arrest and conviction of DUI. Though over-the-counter drugs are legal, they are not always harmless.

Many teenagers will take over-the-counter drugs to stop a headache or relieve cold symptoms. Some take larger amounts of over-the-counter drugs to get high and feel good. Of course, this is particularly risky because taking any drug in large quantities results in a higher level of impairment, but it is important to know that even the recommended dosage of an over-the-counter drug can reduce your driving skills. Your coordination, decision-making, and reaction time can be affected.

Over-the-counter medications are required to have printed warnings about side effects, including driving risks. The bad news is, many people don’t read the warning or they don’t believe it is meant for them. If you don’t understand these warnings, ask a pharmacist for help. Remember that many over-the-counter drugs, such as those that provide multi-symptom cold relief, contain several types of drugs in one pill. Select a medication that treats only the symptoms from which you actually suffer.

Here is a partial list of legal, over-the-counter drugs that could impair your ability to drive.

  • Allergy medicines/Antihistamines
  • Decongestants
  • Cough syrups
  • Motion sickness medication
  • Ulcer medication
  • Alcohol-containing medicines
  • Caffeine-containing medicines

For example, antihistamines slow down reaction time, impair coordination, and can make you extremely sleepy – so sleepy you can’t even hold your head up. Decongestants, which may be combined with antihistamines in multi-symptom cold medicines, can cause anxiety and dizziness. And though many people who take caffeine-containing medications do so to stay awake, the effects of these drugs don’t last long and can end abruptly, leaving you even more tired than before you took the drug. Caffeine is also found in many headache relievers – check the ingredients list of every medicine you take so you’ll be aware of what you’re taking and can consider the effects before you get behind the wheel.

Some over-the-counter drugs (such as cough medicine, which contains alcohol) may temporarily make you feel more alert and confident when you’re driving. This is because your judgment is impaired, not because you’re a better driver than you were before you took the drug. Drugs can fool you into believing you’re in control of your driving when you are, in fact, impaired. Remember, you are responsible for making sure that you are unimpaired by any substance when you drive.

The effects of some over-the-counter drugs may not be apparent until an hour or two after you take them; never put yourself in the position of getting out on the road only to realize you are impaired. And not everyone reacts the same way to the same drug every time, so you could suffer unexpected side effects even if you’ve taken that particular drug in the past with no problems. Plan ahead. Ask a parent or friend to drive you if you need to go somewhere. Realize that if you’re sick enough to need medication, the symptoms of your illness may cause enough impairment that you shouldn’t drive, even if the medication itself doesn’t cause problems.