Driving and Opioids Don’t Mix

If you've recently been prescribed an opiod to relieve pain, it's best to stay off the road for a while.

A 2016 study in Age and Ageing suggests that older adults have an increased risk of crashing their cars within one month of being prescribed opioid pain relievers like oxycodone and morphine. Older adults who have used opioids for several months or more also have an increased risk of causing a single-vehicle accident.

Swedish researchers examined the prescription data of 4,445 drivers between the ages of 50 and 80 who were in accidents that involved only one car and in which at least one person required medical care. They compared the records to those of 17,000 similar-aged drivers not involved in crashes.

After accounting for other factors that affect driving, such as medical conditions and the use of other drugs, the researchers found that drivers who were new opioid users had a 100 percent higher risk of having an accident than the control group of drivers who didn’t use opioids. Regular users had a 60 to 70 percent risk compared with the control group.

However, although the researchers could ascertain when opioid prescriptions were dispensed, they had no way of knowing whether patients were actually taking the prescribed drugs before they crashed.

If your doctor prescribes an opioid, make sure you understand how to use it safely and when it will be safe for you to drive. Mild sedation may occur when you start the drugs, so you’ll want to avoid getting behind the wheel for at least a week and not until side effects have subsided.

If side effects persist, alert your doctor, who will recommend the best way to proceed. Keep in mind that opioids can interact with other drugs you’re taking. You can also build up a tolerance to opioids, requiring higher doses to achieve the same pain relief. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses related to prescription opioids in 2014.

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HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into Healthcentral.com in 2018.