Clearing the air: When allergies and medications inhibit flight safety

Don't let allergies impair your decision-making abilities. Ensure you're fit to fly by cooperating with your AME to keep allergies in check.

The ability to simply walk into a drug store and pick up a product that will alleviate frustrating symptoms or conditions from various, non-threatening illnesses is a true wonder of modern medicine. Over the counter drugs have become such a common and convenient part of our lives that it can be easy to forget the extra caution a pilot must take with any substance they put into their body.

The FAA has honed in on the problem of common medications in its latest FAA Safety Briefing, which cites a 2011 study that found drugs or medications present in 42% of pilots involved in fatal accidents. Some were seemingly benign, over-the-counter allergy medications that carried with them side effects that drastically reduced the pilot's ability to properly control an aircraft. So, as allergy season approaches once again, what can you do to avoid these harmful side effects while relieving frustrating allergy symptoms?

Pilot Allergies

Something in the air

Allergies can be caused by a wide variety of sources in the natural world, including grasses, trees, and flowers, and are generally activated when the plant in question produces large quantities of pollen. The body then produces histamines to protect itself against these invaders, which is why allergies typically involve stuffiness, coughing, sneezing, and watery eyes.

While all these symptoms are designed to protect the body, they can be a nuisance for pilots. At their most severe, allergies can have dramatic effects at higher altitudes, such as difficulty breathing, painful ear blocks, or distracting scratching, sniffing, sneezing, and coughing. Medication is the obvious solution, then, as you can't simply take the entire month of September off because your nose is runny.

You're likely aware of what the trouble is, though. Many common allergy medications cause severe drowsiness or other side effects, which may not feel as bad to the pilot but can be just as, if not more, debilitating to his or her flying capability. The first rule, no matter what you're taking, is to have it checked with your AME. If you're aware that you suffer from seasonal allergies, it's best to go over medication options with an AME before allergy season kicks in, so you're aware of what's approved and what's not before the pollen kicks up.

Pilot Allergies

Ask and receive

Don't fret too much, as there are plenty of allergy medications that are safe for use in flight when taken under careful watch of an AME and honest self-evaluation. Certain eye drops, nasal sprays, and decongestants can relieve symptoms just as well as prohibited products, but without the side effects. Consider speaking to your AME about medications such as Claritin, Allegra, or Sudafed to see if such a medication would be beneficial to you, as well as permissible during flight. Benadryl, Clortrimatron, and Zyrtec are not permitted.

If your symptoms are such that you must take a disqualifying medication, you'll need to ground yourself, generally for about 5x the medication's half life. So, if a drug is intended to be taken twice a day, you'd call the half life 12 hours, then multiply that by 5 for 60 hours before you can fly again. Some medications may not have as long or short an interval as that rule may indicate, though, so again, the importance of speaking to your AME cannot be understated.

Finally, those suffering from minor symptoms may not require medication, but may still desire relief. Consider home remedies such as hot tea, warm rags on the forehead, hot showers, or humidifiers to clear up congestion. Avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine, and drink plenty of water. Take good care of yourself during allergy season, and always keep your AME up to date on your current condition and medication needs.

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