You can Get a DUI from Taking Cough Syrup

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 14, 2021

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  • You could be over the legal driving limit for alcohol, opioids, or pseudoephedrine by taking the proper dose of cough medicine
  • You can be pulled over, cited, or even arrested for driving erratically and having impaired responses even if you are under the legal limit
  • DUIs, DWIs, or other tickets can be given for being unfit to drive even if it’s only because you’re sleepy or have a bad cold

Have you heard about people failing drug tests because of eating poppy seed bagels? Maybe you’ve heard about mouthwash causing a failed breathalyzer test. Those stories sound almost as silly as the idea of getting cited for driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated because of cough medicine, right?

Well, it turns out, all three of these things can happen. The first two, though, are actually false positives, which should not result in actual punishment.

Eating bagels is, of course, perfectly legal. Poppy seeds, however, happen to also be the main ingredient in opium. Eating poppy seeds can contribute to detectable amounts of morphine on drug tests. Even a false positive can have severe consequences, but these mistakes should be corrected.

Some people use mouthwash regularly, especially when feeling nervous or having to interact with people they need to impress. Maybe you’re getting pulled over and want to quickly freshen your breath before the police officer arrives at your window. Unfortunately, using alcohol-containing mouthwash can cause a failed breathalyzer test for several minutes.

Getting a citation for driving under the influence of cough medicine, however, is not a false positive and can land you in a lot of trouble. This is because cough medicine often contains a variety of intoxicants that can impair your ability to drive. Alcohol, opioids, and other drugs can be in cough and cold medicine, and if you’re driving under the influence of one of these substances, you can be ticketed or even arrested.

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What is a DUI or DWI?

Each state has its own laws but driving while impaired has administrative and potential criminal penalties in each state. DUI is Driving Under the Influence, and DWI is either Driving While Intoxicated or Driving While Impaired. In some states, one term is used in place of the other, but in other states, the two terms have different meanings.

Although most people tend to think of these laws as only relating to alcohol, you’ll notice that there’s no mention of alcohol or drinking in those terms. These laws are generally known as drunk driving laws and include a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) specification that constitutes breaking the law, but it’s possible to be in violation without consuming any alcohol at all.

Most laws in the United State make it illegal to operate a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Though the testing and most attention is focused on drunk driving, you can be pulled over and cited for DUI no matter what is causing your impairment, even if you’re just sleepy.

What happens when you get a DUI varies from state to state, but punishments can include license suspension, fines, and even jail time.

What could you be under the influence of when you’ve taken cough medicine?

There are a variety of different ingredients in medicine for colds or coughs. Not only do many of these medications contain alcohol, but several contain pseudoephedrine or codeine and other opioids as well. In addition, many cold medicines — not to mention just having a cold — can make you sleepy. We saw earlier that drowsy driving can constitute driving while impaired.

Having a cold often makes you sleepy, and combining that natural tiredness with alcohol or codeine might make you genuinely impaired.

Alcohol Influence

You may think that treating a cold with alcohol is more of a home remedy. While whiskey might be good for a cold, it’s got nothing to do with modern cough and cold medicine, right? It turns out that alcohol is in a lot of liquid cough and cold medicines, though.

While not all cough syrup type medications contain alcohol, those that do typically have between 10 and 25 percent alcohol by volume. That’s a range between the alcohol by volume (ABV) of wine and some liqueurs. While it’s true that a typical dose of cough syrup isn’t very big, everyone metabolizes alcohol differently.

It’s also not too difficult to take more than intended, especially if you’re tired and sneezing and feeling terrible when you’re measuring.

Codeine and Opioid Influence

Codeine may not be as well known as hydrocodone or other opioids, but both of them are powerful pain relievers that can be an ingredient in prescription-strength cough medicine. Both are highly addictive and both are certainly capable of leading to a DUI.

In the current opioid crisis in the U.S., opioids are much more tightly controlled than they were in the past. All opioids are pain relievers of varying strength. Codeine, in addition to being a pain reliever, is a cough suppressant. Codeine and hydrocodone have both been prescribed for coughs and colds.

Not only are these drugs addictive, but they are also abused, specifically in the form of cough syrup.

Pseudoephedrine Influence

Pseudoephedrine is an ingredient in medications for allergies, sneezing, and sinus congestion. It is also a component in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Pseudoephedrine, like many medicines, can cause false positives on certain drug tests.

Taking medicine containing pseudoephedrine can cause two major legal issues:

  • If you’re subject to a drug test, it’s possible that the pseudoephedrine in your system would result in a false positive for methamphetamine. Because methamphetamine is illegal, this result could lead to arrest and criminal charges.
  • Depending on how the medicine containing pseudoephedrine affects you, you could be cited for DUI or driving while impaired. Remember that an officer can charge you with DUI or other reckless driving-related infractions based on their observations regardless of whether you took something legal, are below the legal limit, or are completely sober.

If you test positive for methamphetamine when you’ve only taken cold or allergy medicine, you may ultimately have all charges dropped, depending on why you were stopped and tested in the first place.

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Why You Might get in Trouble

Just as we discussed with pseudoephedrine, there are a few distinct ways that you can find yourself on the wrong side of the law when driving on cough medicine.

The first is if you are actually taking an illegal substance or it appears that you are. It could appear that you have taken methamphetamine simply because of the close chemical relationship to pseudoephedrine.

It’s also possible to take cough syrup that is actually illegal — medicine containing codeine or other opioids are prescription only. If you have any of these drugs in your system without a prescription, that could lead to a lot of trouble for you. Sharing a prescription is illegal, and obviously stealing someone else’s prescription drugs is also a crime.

The second way that you can wind up breaking the law would be if you were actually impaired. It would be unlikely but not impossible for a driver to be above the legal limit for alcohol from cough medicine. There may not be a legal limit for the other potentially intoxicating substances in other cough medicines.

The third way that you can get in trouble while driving after taking cold medicine is if the officer believes you are unable to safely operate your vehicle. This can happen if you’ve taken something containing opioids or pseudoephedrine that there is no specific test for.

As we mentioned, you could also be cited if your cold is impairing your ability to drive without any medicine contributing. Drowsy driving is increasingly a separate violation in different states. How you might be cited will vary from state to state.

It’s even possible — though less likely — to be cited when you are simply out in public and not driving a car. Public intoxication is a punishable offense in many jurisdictions, though being on strong cold medicine may be enough excuse to get you off with just a warning.

What happens if cough medicine contributes to you having an accident?

If you injured another party during an accident that was your fault, and a hospital blood test shows you had alcohol, codeine, or pseudoephedrine in your system at the time, you may be charged with a drunk driving violation. Even if you were prescribed the medicine by a doctor, you will likely be at fault if the medicine contributed to the accident.

Generally, you will be at fault if your actions led to the wreck, even if those actions weren’t immediately responsible for the accident. For example, if you were drowsy or slow to react because you took cold medicine that you knew contained codeine or alcohol, that decision would make you responsible.

If you get a ticket, are arrested, or cause an accident due to cough medicine, you may want to find an attorney to represent you.They won’t be able to stop the police from charging you if the blood test shows you were under the influence of drugs, but it is best to have representation early on in the process.

What if I don’t know what evidence the police have?

If you are uncertain of whether or not the police accessed the hospital blood test and whether or not they know you had codeine, alcohol, or pseudoephedrine in your system, your attorney should be able to find out.

Either way, you can be certain that you’ll receive an order to appear in court if they know and plan to charge you.

If you retain an attorney, he or she can notify the police and prosecutor that they represent you; they will likely offer a courtesy notice when a warrant for your arrest is issued. Then, instead of the police arresting you, your lawyer will just take you to court and ask the judge to set bail.

You’re likely to be subject to higher bail and more time in jail if you wait to see if the police have issued a warrant. In addition, you or your attorney keeping track of whether there’s a warrant can prevent you from being arrested.

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Getting Help

In a situation in which you have not been drinking or abusing drugs, it is always best to opt for a breath test and/or roadside sobriety test to prove to the officer that you are not intoxicated.

Be sure to tell your attorney every detail of what happened, including what kind of cough medicine you took. It may be the case that you weren’t necessarily under the influence even though it was in your blood. Your attorney should be familiar with a variety of potential defense options for drunk driving.

Driving while intoxicated laws also differ on this issue from state to state, so be sure to look at your state’s specific laws to learn how a DUI might impact you.

Because the law varies, it’s important that you consult with an attorney in your area. Remember, in these cases, it’s always better to consult with an experienced professional as soon as possible.

Bringing it All Together

We’ve seen that there are a lot of different ways that your driving could be impaired when you have a cold. Being sick can make you feel run down and tired, and drowsy driving or falling asleep at the wheel can have serious consequences.

Taking medicine might help you feel better, but it can also cause trouble when you’re driving. Cough and cold medicines may contain ingredients that can lead you to test positive for a variety of drugs because of the chemical relationship between drugs like pseudoephedrine and methamphetamine.

The alcohol, opioids, and other ingredients in some cough medicines can impair your driving enough for you to be cited or even arrested, especially if you drive recklessly or carelessly. As a driver, you are required to operate your vehicle safely — even when you’re sick or taking medicine.

Bottom line: if you’re feeling too sick to drive, too tired, or too impaired from medicine, you should definitely stay home and take care of your cold.

If you do find yourself getting a ticket for cold medicine, it’s a good idea to consult with an attorney. You can find the right attorney for you using your ZIP code right now and get specific help on your legal issue.

Find a lawyer to provide trusted legal advice for your DUI. Enter your zip code above.

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