Cold and flu season is upon us again. Before you reach for the medicine cabinet, become familiar with the medications that can cause fatigue or drowsiness. Whether it’s an over-the-counter flu fighter or a prescription that you have a refill on, it’s smart to know the possible side effects of every medication that you’re taking.
When you’re fatigued or drowsy, you’re more likely to be less alert and make mistakes at work or be prone to trips or falls. Drowsiness from medication can also impair learning, decrease retention of information, and make you feel just sluggish overall. In the most dangerous of scenarios, it can even cause your involvement in a motor vehicle collision. In many states, the “drunk driving” laws and been expanded to “driving while impaired.” This could mean that if you’re driving while drowsy, you could be breaking the law in your area.
The Drowsy Driving Epidemic
According to a CDC report, drowsy driving is widespread. In fact, they report that each year, American drivers rack up 72,000 collisions; 44,000 of these wrecks result in an injury. Moreover, over 8,000 people perish in drowsy-related wrecks each year. These are staggering statistics. The CDC report goes on to cite the use of medications as one of the top 5 reasons for drowsy or fatigued driving that leads to these accidents. Knowing if your medication can cause fatigue or drowsiness is one way to prevent becoming a sad statistic.
Perhaps the most dangerous of these medications are over-the-counter medications. This is because you are purchasing them at your local drugstore, probably without the advice of your pharmacist. Because prescriptions are carefully flagged with warning labels, and your pharmacist will give you detailed usage instructions, you are less likely to be left unaware of these side effects with a prescription medication than one that’s OTC. For that reason, we are focusing today on the top 5 over the counter medicines that are notorious for making you feel sleepy or fatigued.
Diphenhydramine (Brand name: Benadryl)
If you suffer from allergies, you’re probably aware that diphenhydramine is very effective at keeping them in check. It’s not only the active ingredient in Benadryl and its generic counterparts, but it’s also used in popular sleep aids such as Tylenol PM and Advil PM. To cut down on drowsiness, take diphenhydramine only before bedtime. Talk to your pharmacist to find a non-drowsy allergy controller for daytime use.
Chlorphenamine (Brand name: ChlorTimetron)
Another allergy medication that has a sedative effect is chlorphenamine. It’s particularly used by allergy sufferers who break out into hives along with their sneezing and sniffling. The sedative effect in this medicine, in essence, shuts down the signal the brain sends that produces hives. However, it also makes many people very sleepy. Consider a non-sedating allergy medication with a topical cream to treat the hives to stay more alert.
Dextromethorphan (Brand name: Robitussin DM, Mucinex DM –any with DM after the name!)
Those who fight sinus infections, coughs, or colds have probably tried Dextromethorphan. It is a super-effective cough suppressant. It’s a catch-22. You are coughing all night and can’t get any rest. But, you’re sick with a cold and need the shut-eye. You grab Dextromethorphan because it quickly controls coughing. This means that you’ll get that fast relief and finally catch some much needed sleep. However, plan to take this medication as a nighttime formula. Purchase a second cough syrup without dextromethorphan for daytime use if it causes you to feel sleepy.
Doxylamine (Brand name: Nyquil)
Doxylamine is another antihistamine that makes this list. In addition to being used in allergy and cold medications, it’s found in some sleep aid tablets due to its sedative effect.
Perhaps it’s best-known as an ingredient in Nyquil. Bear in mind, however, that Nyquil also contains the previously mentioned ingredient dextromethorphan. This combination is why it relieves your cold symptoms so powerfully and lets you sleep. While it’s a fantastic way to fight a common cold or cold combined with allergies, take this medicine only when you are safely at home and ready to drop into your bed!
Loperamide (Brand name: Imodium)
If you’ve ever had a bout of diarrhea with your flu symptoms, you’ve probably grabbed the Imodium. I bet you didn’t realize that it can make you sleepy! Loperamide helps to calm down the irritation that causes you to have diarrhea. However, it doesn’t treat the cause of it. This enables you (and your tummy) to have a respite from diarrhea as your flu runs its course. If loperamide causes you drowsiness, take it when you can stay home and in bed…you probably shouldn’t be at work anyways!
How Can I Tell When I’m Driving Drowsy?
Often, drivers incorrectly attribute their drowsy driving to a long day at work, distraction, or even just the cold itself.
Here are some of the signs that your medicine has rendered you unfit to drive:
- Your vision is blurred, you can’t visually focus on the road or other cars.
- You find your mind drifting.
- Perhaps you don’t remember seeing or passing familiar landmarks.
- You’re hitting the rumble strips or crossing the center line.
- You can’t pay attention or keep your mind focused.
These are all telltale signs that you are endangering yourself and others on the road. Pull over, call a friend for a ride, and return for your car after you get some rest. The risk is simply not worth it!
Over the counter medications are often overlooked as a source of tiredness or fatigue. However, if you are taking medications, OTC or prescription, know the possible side effects. Both your family physician and your pharmacist should be go-to resources to learn how to take medications safely.
Need a further reason to check in with a professional? Your OTC medications will interact with your prescriptions medicines. This can create a situation that’s dangerous to your well-being. Asking your pharmacist for guidance can help you make a smart selection. If you still need to take those OTC medicines, knowing that they can impair you and being alert to those side effects can save a life.
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