Answers for Pilots

What's OK?

February 1, 2003

FAA policy for medication usage

Did you know that if you are taking an antihistamine or decongestant for a cold, you should not fly for 12 hours after taking the last dose? That if you take Accutane for acne, you cannot fly at night? If you've taken Ambien for sleeplessness, you need to wait 48 hours before flying? Or if you have taken Maxalt or Zomig for your migraine headache, you need to wait 24 hours before flying?

These and many other stipulations make up the FAA's guide to medication usage. AOPA's Medical Certification department has compiled an extensive database of more than 200 over-the-counter medications and their FAA approval status. Although these medications are generally allowed by the FAA for flight duties, individual variables such as case history or adverse side effects could render a particular medication inappropriate for flight, according to Gary Crump, medical specialist for AOPA. "Some medications are being used off labelythis means that a drug is prescribed for symptoms that do not fall within the FAA's approved guidelines for that drug."

FAR 61.53 prohibits a person from acting as pilot in command or as a required pilot flight crewmember while that person "knows or has reason to know of any medical condition that would make the person unable to meet the requirements for the medical certificate necessary for the pilot operation" or "is taking medication or receiving other treatment for a medical condition that results in the person being unable to meet the requirements for the medical certificate necessary for pilot operation." FAR 91.17 states, "(a) No person may act or attempt to act as a pilot crewmember of a civil aircraft while using any drug that affects the person's faculties in any way contrary to safety ...."

Drugs that cause no apparent side effects on the ground can create serious problems with only moderate increases in altitude. Even for general aviation pilots flying at relatively low altitudes the changes in concentrations of atmospheric gases — including oxygen and nitrogen — in the blood can enhance the effects of seemingly innocuous drugs and result in impaired judgment, decision making, and performance.

The AOPA database of FAA-accepted medications is not a complete list, but an evolving one. "There are medications that the FAA will probably approve but won't be in our database," cautions Crump. If you have questions about the appropriateness of a drug, call the AOPA Medical Certification department on the AOPA Pilot Information Center (800/872-2672).

As an AOPA member, you have access to the best resources anywhere for information and answers for pilots. AOPA provides information for its members through a vast array of communications technologies. You can reach experts in all fields of aviation via AOPA Online (, the AOPA Pilot Information Center (800/USA-AOPA), and e-mail ( [email protected]). Aviation technical specialists respond promptly to member requests while AOPA Online provides members with access to information and resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The toll-free AOPA Pilot Information Center gives you direct access to specialists in every area of aviation. The center is available to members from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday.

AOPA Web resources

Database compiled by the AOPA Medical Certification department that is based on confirmation with the FAA Aeromedical Certification Division. More than 200 "approved" medications are listed by generic name, trade name, drug classification, and the basis for the FAA approval. In many cases, links to a complete write-up on the listed drug are available. See: FAA Accepted Medications Database

Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker | AOPA Senior Features Editor

AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.