Health and Physiological Factors Affecting Pilot Performance (Part Nine) – Drugs and Alcohol (cont…)

Another important consideration is that the medical condition for which a medication is prescribed may itself be disqualifying. The FAA will consider the condition in the context of risk for medical incapacitation, and the medication as well for cognitive impairment, and either or both could be found unacceptable for medical certification.


Some of the most commonly used OTC drugs, antihistamines and decongestants, have the potential to cause noticeable adverse side effects, including drowsiness and cognitive deficits. The symptoms associated with common upper respiratory infections, including the common cold, often suppress a pilot’s desire to fly, and treating symptoms with a drug that causes adverse side effects only compounds the problem. Particularly, medications containing diphenhydramine (e.g., Benadryl) are known to cause drowsiness and have a prolonged half-life, meaning the drugs stay in one’s system for an extended time, which lengthens the time that side effects are present.

Many medications, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, strong pain relievers, and cough suppressants, have primary effects that may impair judgment, memory, alertness, coordination, vision, and the ability to make calculations. [Figure 17-9] Others, such as antihistamines, blood pressure drugs, muscle relaxants, and agents to control diarrhea and motion sickness, have side effects that may impair the same critical functions. Any medication that depresses the nervous system, such as a sedative, tranquilizer, or antihistamine, can make a pilot more susceptible to hypoxia.

Figure 17-9. Adverse affects of various drugs.

Figure 17-9. Adverse affects of various drugs. [click image to enlarge]

Painkillers are grouped into two broad categories: analgesics and anesthetics. Analgesics are drugs that reduce pain, while anesthetics are drugs that deaden pain or cause loss of consciousness.


Over-the-counter analgesics, such as acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and ibuprofen (Advil), have few side effects when taken in the correct dosage. Although some people are allergic to certain analgesics or may suffer from stomach irritation, flying usually is not restricted when taking these drugs. However, flying is almost always precluded while using prescription analgesics, such as drugs containing propoxyphene (e.g., Darvon), oxycodone (e.g., Percodan), meperidine (e.g., Demerol), and codeine, since these drugs are known to cause side effects, such as mental confusion, dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vision problems.

Anesthetic drugs are commonly used for dental and surgical procedures. Most local anesthetics used for minor dental and outpatient procedures wear off within a relatively short period of time. The anesthetic itself may not limit flying as much as the actual procedure and subsequent pain.

Stimulants are drugs that excite the central nervous system and produce an increase in alertness and activity. Amphetamines, caffeine, and nicotine are all forms of stimulants. Common uses of these drugs include appetite suppression, fatigue reduction, and mood elevation. Some of these drugs may cause a stimulant reaction, even though this reaction is not their primary function. In some cases, stimulants can produce anxiety and mood swings, both of which are dangerous when flying.

Depressants are drugs that reduce the body’s functioning in many areas. These drugs lower blood pressure, reduce mental processing, and slow motor and reaction responses. There are several types of drugs that can cause a depressing effect on the body, including tranquilizers, motion sickness medication, some types of stomach medication, decongestants, and antihistamines. The most common depressant is alcohol.

Some drugs that are classified as neither stimulants nor depressants have adverse effects on flying. For example, some antibiotics can produce dangerous side effects, such as balance disorders, hearing loss, nausea, and vomiting. While many antibiotics are safe for use while flying, the infection requiring the antibiotic may prohibit flying. In addition, unless specifically prescribed by a physician, do not take more than one drug at a time, and never mix drugs with alcohol because the effects are often unpredictable.

The dangers of illegal drugs also are well documented. Certain illegal drugs can have hallucinatory effects that occur days or weeks after the drug is taken. Obviously, these drugs have no place in the aviation community.

14 CFR prohibits pilots from performing crewmember duties while using any medication that affects the body in any way contrary to safety. The safest rule is not to fly as a crewmember while taking any medication, unless approved to do so by the FAA. If there is any doubt regarding the effects of any medication, consult an AME before flying.


Prior to each and every flight, all pilots must do a proper physical self-assessment to ensure safety. A great mnemonic, covered in the Aeronautical Decision-Making category, is IMSAFE, which stands for Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, and Emotion.

For the medication component of IMSAFE, pilots need to ask themselves, “Am I taking any medicines that might affect my judgment or make me drowsy? For any new medication, OTC or prescribed, you should wait at least 48 hours after the first dose before flying to determine you do not have any adverse side effects that would make it unsafe to operate an aircraft. In addition to medication questions, pilots should also consider the following –

  • Do not take any unnecessary or elective medications;
  • Make sure you eat regular balanced meals;
  • Bring a snack for both you and your passengers for the flight;
  • Maintain good hydration – bring plenty of water;
  • Ensure adequate sleep the night prior to the flight; and
  • Stay physically fit.

Additionally, you should wait at least five maximal dosing intervals, the time between recommended or prescribed dosing, (e.g., a dosing interval of 5 to 6 hours would require you to wait 30 hours) before flying after taking any medication that has potentially adverse side effects (e.g., sedating or dizziness). Observing the recommended dosing interval doesn’t eliminate the risk for adverse side effects because everyone metabolizes medications differently. However, five times the dosing interval is a reasonable rule of thumb.