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Allergy Medicines Make Driving Dangerous

People often think that the most dangerous time to drive is between Christmas and New Year’s. That’s because of all the holiday parties that lead revelers to drink too much and get behind the wheel.
While it is certainly true that far too many people drive while intoxicated, we would argue that spring is actually a more dangerous time to be on the roads. More than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies. At this time of the year they can be a hazard on the highways.
Allergies make people dopey and sleepy as well as sneezy. Red itchy eyes, a drippy nose and frequent sneezing can make it hard for a victim to drive safely. Trying to see clearly and steer straight in the middle of a gigantic sneeze is next to impossible.
The trouble is that the medications people rely on to control allergy symptoms may also make allergy sufferers dangerous behind the wheel. Driving under the influence of certain antihistamines could make a driver as impaired as drinking an alcoholic beverage.
Diphenhydramine (DPH) is found in many over-the-counter products, including Benadryl and house brand allergy pills. It is also included in some cough medicines (AllerMax) and a variety of pain relievers including Alka-Seltzer PM, Excedrin PM and Tylenol PM.
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (March 7, 2000) reported that DPH “had a greater impact on driving than alcohol did.” There is a warning on the label of Benadryl and other OTC allergy medicine warning patients that “marked drowsiness may occur” and urging them to “be careful when driving a motor vehicle or operating machinery.”
Such cautions are as meaningless as telling a drunk to be careful behind the wheel. The scientists discovered that “drowsiness ratings were not a good predictor of impairment, suggesting that drivers cannot use drowsiness to indicate when they should not drive.”
A recent review (Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, March 2005) of 16 double-blind studies evaluating driving in actual traffic found that most other antihistamines can also interfere with drivers’ performance. The authors concluded that Allegra did not impair driving ability, however.
What can allergy sufferers do to relieve their symptoms without endangering themselves or others if they get behind the wheel? An over-the-counter nasal spray, Nasalcrom, makes tissues less reactive to pollen. An herbal extract that may be helpful is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).
Steroid nasal sprays such as Beconase, Flonase, Nasacort, Nasalide, Nasonex or Rhinocort prevent allergy symptoms without causing drowsiness. These are available only by prescription.
Another option involves a new kind of oral treatment. Singulair interrupts the inflammation that leads to allergy symptoms. This medication was originally developed for asthma but was found to be helpful against allergies as well.
Allergy victims who have to make important decisions, operate machinery or drive a car during allergy season must be very careful at this time of year. Their symptoms put them at a disadvantage, but the treatment could be worse than their affliction.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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