Can Pilots Take Medication?

It is safe for pilots to take medication, so long as it does not impair their ability to operate an aircraft safely.

The question is really, does that person have a condition that makes them unsafe to fly? If they have a condition that is controlled by regular medication, does this medication inhibit their ability to perform actions safely, by making them drowsy, light-headed, and/or confused?

Would that pilot be safe to fly without that medication if it is only providing relief of a symptom, rather than controlling a medical condition? For over-the-counter medications, it is always important to check the label.

If a pilot has had a reaction or side effect previously to any of the active ingredients, it is important to consider how this might affect their flying capabilities. It is vital to avoid medications with “PM” in the name, for example, as these tend to make the user drowsy.

Also, most medications come with warnings not to operate vehicles and other machinery if they are known to have serious side effects. Ideally, if a pilot is starting a new medication, they should take 5-7 doses before they can understand fully how this medication will affect them.

If in doubt of what is considered a “safe” medication to take whilst flying, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) offers clear guidance on their website, categorizing medication and listing active ingredients.

Can a pilot take melatonin?

Melatonin is the body’s way of controlling your sleep cycle. Melatonin tablets consist of a man-made hormone compound that mimics your body’s natural melatonin. It is usually prescribed to those who have problems falling asleep or staying asleep through the night.

It can also be used to combat jet lag, making it a popular option for those who travel a lot. It is usually prescribed to those who are over 50 and only given as a course of a couple of weeks to a month, rather than as an ongoing medication. While most users of melatonin will not suffer any side effects, some people report minor issues.

Due to the nature of the drug, melatonin can make you drowsy during the day and can also trigger headaches and dizzy spells. The FAA advises with any medication, that you should not fly while you take them if you have side effects that impair your abilities. They advise that melatonin is generally okay to use but can create a morning “hangover” feeling.

They also acknowledge that taking melatonin at the wrong time can worsen jet lag and increase drowsiness. With melatonin, the FAA advises that you have at least 5 doses before you can make an informed decision about how the medication affects you personally.

Can pilots take gabapentin?

If you are suffering from nerve pain or headaches, your doctor might prescribe gabapentin. This analgesic takes a few weeks to work and can also take time to adjust to. Some common side effects from gabapentin are fatigue, drowsiness, and dizziness which may impair your ability to operate machinery and undertake day-to-day tasks. 

Gabapentin tends to be given as a long-term medication for those suffering from chronic pain. If given for nerve pain, you still may need to continue the medication for a few months after your pain has improved to ensure that it does not return. 

Whilst gabapentin can be used to treat nerve pain, it is mainly used to treat epilepsy. Epilepsy is a condition that anyone can develop and is due to abnormal brain activity. This abnormality can cause seizures, lack of awareness, and/or unpredictable behavior.

Those who have been diagnosed with epilepsy, are not allowed to hold or obtain a pilot’s license. Gabapentin is not currently approved by the FAA for use by pilots, along with other analgesics such as oxycodone, fentanyl, and codeine. This is due to the nature of the illnesses they treat and also because of their sedating side effects.

Is Zoloft approved by the FAA?

Zoloft consists of sertraline and is used to treat anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. It is classed as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and works to restore the brain’s balance of serotonin.

Some common side effects of Zoloft include twitchiness, drowsiness, and dizziness. In some cases, more side effects can occur. You should contact your doctor if you suffer from muscle weakness, tremors/twitchiness, and/or restlessness. Zoloft may be approved for use by the FAA when treating depression, but only on a case-by-case basis.

Most other SSRIs are not allowed so this is worth checking if your doctor recommends switching your medication over at any point. The FAA also stipulates that if you are taking Zoloft, you are required to see a psychiatrist every six months.

Effective treatment and management of your depression over 12 months are also required before approval by the FAA. The degree to which your anxiety, depression, or panic attacks will also have to be reviewed, and the FAA may consult your doctor for your medical history.

If your condition is treatable and well-managed, you are more likely to be approved for flying on Zoloft. However, you are automatically unable to obtain or hold a pilot’s license and FAA certificate if you suffer from psychosis, bipolar disorder, and/or severe personality disorder.

Is Ambien approved by the FAA?

Ambien is the brand name for zolpidem and is used short-term to treat sleeping problems. It is used to better synchronize irregular sleep patterns and treat jet lag. Ambien has been misused by some as, when taken in very high doses, it can cause temporary feelings of euphoria.

Over time, abusing Ambien can lead to extreme fatigue, clumsiness, and confusion. Ambien is approved on a case-by-case basis by the FAA, and is usually dependent on the way it is used.

For example, if you only use it short-term, Ambien can be approved for use by the FAA. This is as long as you only take one or two doses a week, and wait for 24 hours before flying after your last dose.

However, if you use it to treat chronic sleep issues over long periods, you are required to wait a much longer period before safely operating machinery, and therefore will not be granted approval. Melatonin may be recommended by your doctor as an alternative treatment if required for short-term use.

If you only need to take something to help with your sleep very occasionally, certain PM medication may be a better fit for you. No matter what you take, you should always adhere to the FAA guidance and downtime between doses.

Can pilots take anxiety medication?

Certain antidepressants that also treat anxiety are allowed by the FFA. Counseling is encouraged and 6-monthly reviews are also required. Depending on the specific medication that you require to manage your anxiety, the FFA may review your medical history and want to determine the cause and level of your anxiety.

Pilots are authorized by the FAA to take anxiety medication so long as they are not adversely affected by the medication. There is clear guidance offered by the FFA on what protocol to follow with each type of medication. Always follow the guidance on the medication itself and do not attempt to fly if you are impaired in any way.

Can you be a pilot if you take antidepressants?

As of 2010, the FFA guidance changed to allow the use of four antidepressants for pilots suffering from mild to moderate depression. These are Zoloft, Lexapro, Celexa, and Prozac. These should always be taken as prescribed and the pilot will still need to have 6-monthly reviews.

It is also subject to how the pilot reacts to the medication as side effects vary per individual and not all medications work for everyone. If any other antidepressant medication is required, the pilot must take leave of their duties and undergo psychiatric help.

If the pilot is deemed healthy by a psychiatrist and no longer relies upon the unapproved medication, they will be able to return to piloting once agreed by the FFA. The FFA are strict on their guidance to ensure that the safety of passengers and pilots comes first.

If a pilot is suffering from depression, it could be best for them to take time to focus on their mental health without the further stress of worrying about work commitments. Due to fewer travel requirements, they will then also be able to follow a more structured therapy program to improve their health.

What medication can a pilot take?

The type of medication suitable for pilots is strictly governed by the FFA. Whilst most over-the-counter medication will not pose any concern to the FFA, certain prescription medication is not approved. They have provided multiple guides which outline suitable medications and also explain the rationale behind their guidance. This guidance is regularly updated to reflect the latest scientific research.

In some cases, they will recommend that each specific case is reviewed thoroughly to determine whether or not a person on a particular medication should be allowed to obtain or hold an FFA certificate.

Their decisions are based on the side effects of medication and the level to which they impair the abilities of the pilot taking them. They will additionally assess whether the pilot requires long-term or short-term treatment for a medical issue and whether there may be a more appropriate treatment method. 

The FFA ultimately can only allow pilots to take medication and still retain their certification if they are not putting themselves and other passengers at risk.