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Can medication make a pilot unfit to fly?

A pilot needs to be in the best shape possible to navigate the Alaska skies. Sometimes, though, an Alaskan pilot may require medication to handle a certain ailment or condition. So the question is, how can medication affect a pilot's performance, and is a pilot under medication automatically disqualifed from flying? If you happen to be a pilot yourself, it is vital to pay attention to any medications that can hamper your performance in the sky and possibly endanger you and a passenger.

According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association website, Federal Aviation Association (FAA) regulations provide general guidance for when pilots may fly if they are medically treated. If any pilot is taking medication that degrades their faculties under the requirements of the medical certificate for operating a plane, they cannot fly. Pilots also cannot fly if they consume any drug that would make their operation of a plane unsafe.

The FAA lays out prohibitions against many types of drugs that are consumed on a continuous basis to treat medical conditions. These drugs can affect a person’s mood, such as steroids or anxiolytics, or affect blood flow, like anticoagulants, or create drowsiness, such as antihistamines or tranquilizers. Additionally, the use of anticonvulsants can ground a pilot because it indicates that the pilot has a history of seizures, and although anticonvulsants can reduce the chances of a reoccurrence, they do not guarantee seizures will never occur again.

It is also important to remember that medicines that do not produce side effects while on the ground may create them while up in the air. It does not take more than a modest boost in altitude for medication to start impairing a person’s judgment or decision making abilities. This is because a raised altitude alters the concentration of oxygen and nitrogen levels in the bloodstream and can increase the potency of medicines and drugs.

Some drugs may be acceptable, such as specific cardiac or antihypertensive drugs, but these medications should be certified on a case by case basis with a qualified physician. For example, a pilot may be able to fly with antiarrhythmics in the pilot’s system, but not if the antiarrhythmics are nitrates used to handle angina. A pilot can also consult, along with a doctor, appropriate aeromedical materials that describe the effects of medications on flight performance. 

This article is intended to inform readers about aviation and is not to be taken as legal advice.

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