Is It Safe To Drive If You Have Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It causes pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep, leading to chronic medical conditions and causing daytime sleepiness, a phenomenon closely related to an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents.
So whether you have long commutes or are a commercial driver, continue reading to learn more about how sleep apnea can impact your road safety.
Can I Drive If I Have Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea patients can drive safely if they make sure they’re getting proper treatment, as well as a good night’s sleep. Using a CPAP machine is the best and most effective treatment for sleep apnea and its consequences.
According to a study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, traffic accidents were reduced by 70% among sleep apnea patients who receive CPAP therapy for an average of at least four hours per night.
Can You Still Drive If You Have Sleep Apnea?
Yes! The general population is still able to keep their driver’s license if they have sleep apnea. However, even though FMCSA regulations do not specifically address sleep apnea, they do prescribe that a person with a medical history or clinical diagnosis of any condition likely to interfere with their ability to drive safely cannot be medically qualified to operate a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) in interstate commerce.
However, once successfully treated, a driver may regain their “medically-qualified-to-drive” status. It is important to note that most cases of sleep apnea can be treated successfully with CPAP therapy.
Since each State sets its own medical standards for driving a CMV in interstate commerce, you should check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles for regulations in your State.
If you plan to get a commercial driving license and become a truck driver, you need a valid Department of Transportation (DOT) medical card. To obtain this medical card, you must get an annual physical exam, including a sleep study, such as polysomnography or a home sleep test.
The NightOwl is Sleeplay’s DOT-approved home sleep test that allows you to rule out or diagnose sleep apnea in the comfort of your home! If sleep apnea is diagnosed, you can instantly get a prescription for sleep solutions that fit your needs and start receiving treatment.
Can Sleep Apnea Cause Car Accidents?
Not getting enough high-quality sleep is a risk factor for driving accidents. If you have sleep apnea, you experience several “micro-awakenings” during the night that prevent you from entering a deep sleep state. This means that you’ll feel less rested in the morning, and you won’t be able to respond in a timely manner to situations that can arise while driving.
Why Am I Falling Asleep at the Wheel?
Drowsy driving is driving when sleepy. This usually happens when the driver hasn’t slept enough or didn’t have a good quality sleep. This is common in sleep apnea patients, shift workers and new parents. According to the National Safety Council, drowsy driving is responsible for around 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths each year.
If you find yourself falling asleep while you’re driving, there may be an underlying problem that’s affecting your quality of sleep. Some of the most common causes of this phenomenon are:
Sleep apnea disrupts your sleep quality and quantity. The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is caused by a blockage in the upper airway that leads to apnea episodes, when you stop breathing while sleeping.
Untreated sleep apnea not only leads to a higher risk of falling asleep at the wheel, but it also increases your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and strokes.
The most common symptoms of sleep apnea are loud snoring, morning headaches, excessive daytime sleepiness, and waking up at night gasping for air.
If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, you should consult with your primary healthcare provider or take our Sleep Apnea Quiz to find out whether you need to get a sleep apnea test.
Other Sleep Disorders
Sleep apnea is not the only sleep disorder that can affect your driving performance. Other conditions, such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and periodic limb movement disorder, can also interfere with your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep at night, leading to daytime sleepiness and fatigue.
If you have trouble sleeping on a regular basis, you should seek professional help and follow good sleep hygiene practices like avoiding caffeine and screens before bed, sticking to a regular sleep schedule, and creating a comfortable and dark sleeping environment.
Alcohol slows down your central nervous system and impairs your judgment, coordination, reaction time and vision. Even if you’re not legally drunk, alcohol can still make you sleepy and reduce your alertness behind the wheel.
The effects of alcohol are also magnified by sleep deprivation, so if you are already tired, drinking can make you even more drowsy. This will lead to a higher risk of getting into a motor vehicle crash if you decide to drive.
Some prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause drowsiness as a side effect. These include antihistamines, antidepressants, painkillers, muscle relaxants, sleeping pills, and cold medicines.
Before you take any medication, you should read the label carefully and follow the instructions. If the medication warns you not to drive or operate machinery while taking it, you should follow that advice and avoid driving until the effects wear off.
The Time of Day
Your body has a natural rhythm that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. This rhythm is influenced by light exposure, hormones, and lifestyle habits. At night, your body temperature drops and your melatonin levels rise, signalling your brain that it’s time to sleep.
If you drive at night, you’re more likely to experience drowsiness and microsleeps, which are brief episodes of falling asleep involuntarily. You can avoid this by taking a short nap before hitting the road or taking breaks whenever you feel like you’re getting tired.
Mental Health Issues
Mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety can also affect your sleep quality. Some of them can cause insomnia, hypersomnia, nightmares or night terrors. These complications can affect your daily activities, which include your ability to drive.
Any condition or substance that causes sleep deprivation can impair your motor and cognitive skills, as well as your ability to stay awake during repetitive tasks, such as driving. Some symptoms of sleep deprivation are:
- ●Chronic drowsiness
- ●Difficulty concentrating
- ●Mood swings and irritability.
If you have any of these symptoms, you should see a healthcare professional to find out the cause and start the appropriate treatment.
How to Stay Alert While Driving
Get Enough Sleep
Try the Night Owl Home Sleep Test
Use a CPAP Machine
Drive with a Passenger
Caffeine can help you stay alert and energized for a short period of time, but it’s not a substitute for sleep. If you feel sleepy while driving, you can drink a cup of coffee to boost your alertness.
However, be aware that caffeine can also have side effects, such as jitteriness, anxiety or insomnia. Avoid relying on caffeine alone to keep you awake for long periods of time.
How to Avoid Sleep-Related Traffic Accidents
Know the Signs of Drowsiness
Being able to recognize the signs of drowsiness is a great way to avoid falling asleep while driving. Some signs you may be too tired to drive are:
- ●Frequent yawning
- ●Blinking or rubbing your eyes.
- ●Having trouble keeping your head up.
- ●Drifting from your lane.
- ● Feeling restless or irritable.
- ●Having difficulty focusing or remembering the last few miles driven.
If you notice any of these signs, you should pull over to a safe place and take a break as soon as possible.
Avoid Alcohol and Medications that Cause Drowsiness
Take Breaks and Use Countermeasures
If you are driving long distances, you should stop every two hours or every 100 miles to stretch, walk around or take a nap for 15 to 20 minutes. You can also use countermeasures such as drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages, listening to music or podcasts, or opening the window for fresh air.
However, these countermeasures are only temporary and shouldn’t replace getting enough sleep. They can also lose their effectiveness over time, so you shouldn’t rely on them if you’re going to be driving for a long time.
If You Have Sleep Apnea…
Since people with sleep apnea have a higher risk of falling asleep while driving and getting into traffic accidents, they need to be extra careful to make sure they aren’t drowsy driving.
If you have sleep apnea and want to avoid sleep-related traffic accidents, you should:
- ●Use your CPAP treatment every night for the recommended duration.
- ●Monitor your symptoms and the effectiveness of your treatment.
- ●Plan ahead and schedule breaks.
Sleep apnea is not only a health condition, but also a potential hazard for drivers. It can impair your alertness, reaction time and decision-making ability behind the wheel, increasing your chances of getting into a driving accident, especially if left untreated.
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